SI Vault
February 20, 2012
The nascent PGA Tour season was jolted alive at Pebble Beach, where a resurgent Phil Mickelson took down archrival Tiger Woods with a final round that neither will soon forget
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February 20, 2012


The nascent PGA Tour season was jolted alive at Pebble Beach, where a resurgent Phil Mickelson took down archrival Tiger Woods with a final round that neither will soon forget

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Say this about Phil Mickelson: It's never boring with him around. In recent weeks the arthritic Hall of Fame inductee had made news for suing an Internet provider (in hopes of silencing an abusive commenter), going public with his plans to redesign Torrey Pines's North course and putting his Rancho Santa Fe mansion up for sale ($7.1 million, practice putting green included). Most significant, his daughter Sophia, 10, suffered a mild seizure. (Thankfully, she's O.K.) The only place Mickelson wasn't doing something of note was on the golf course; he was a nonfactor in his first three starts of 2012. So naturally on Sunday at Pebble Beach he summoned his most resounding performance in ages, blowing away the field with a bogeyless 64 to steal the 40th victory of his career and remind us that at 41, he can still play a little.

"Excluding the four major championships he's won, this has to be the best final round of his career," said Mickelson's caddie of two decades, Jim Mackay.

Mickelson was six strokes off the lead of journeyman Charlie Wi at the start of the final round, but the tournament within the tournament was with his playing partner, Tiger Woods. It was a dream matchup for Mickelson, who in the last five years has learned to elevate his play in the presence of his longtime adversary. (In eight of their previous 11 rounds together Phil had shot the lower score, including five in a row on Sundays.) For Tiger, it's like trying to beat an overbearing older brother, and he seemed bothered from the very beginning of the round, missing short putts and hitting loose short irons on Pebble's exploitable opening holes.

Mickelson was focused and fired up, birdieing the 2nd, 4th and 5th holes on the strength of gorgeous approach shots. And yet the key moment of the round may have been on the par-4 3rd, where he poured in a five-footer for a momentum-saving par. Last year this most instinctive of feel players was so shaky on such knee-knockers that he experimented with a belly putter. But after a winter of working on his stroke and his mental game, Mickelson has gone back to a traditional putter and found some peace of mind.

"He's the most calm I've ever seen him on the greens," says Mickelson's putting coach, Dave Stockton. "He tends to think about things way too much. Right now he doesn't want any ideas or thoughts, nothing technical. He's simply seeing it and feeling it and doing it. I'm really tickled."

On Pebble's par-5 6th hole Mickelson buried a 21-footer for eagle, taking the lead from a faltering Wi and moving two ahead of Woods, who after a birdie at the 6th responded with three straight bogeys. Tiger at last showed a little fight by holing out a bunker shot on the 12th, but Mickelson answered by draining a 30-footer for par. "I feel very inspired when I play with him," Phil said of Tiger. "I love playing with him, and he brings out some of my best golf. I seem more focused."

Just to rub it in, Mickelson made a 38-footer to save par on the 15th hole. (For his part, Woods missed five putts inside five feet.)

Mickelson's victory ties him with Cary Middlecoff and Tom Watson for ninth on the alltime list. Only giants of the game loom ahead: Hagen (45 wins), Casper (51), Nelson (52), Palmer (62), Hogan (64), Woods (71), Nicklaus (73) and Snead (82).

This latest victory was a testament to the people around Mickelson. He spent the two days preceding the tournament hanging out at Cypress Point, enjoying the club's privacy and famous course. Mickelson has cultivated friendships with a number of Cypress members, and his comfort level with the locals—and their throaty support—helps to partially explain his four victories at Pebble Beach, a total exceeded only by Mark O'Meara (five).

On Thursday evening Mickelson's wife, Amy, came to town, the kind of getaway that has only recently become possible as she progresses in her treatments for breast cancer. During Mickelson's second round, which began on the 10th hole at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, he missed a short par putt on the 18th hole. He was, in Amy's words, "pretty mopey." Between nines Amy pulled her hubby aside for a pep talk. "She said, 'Come on now, cheer up. Let's go make some birdies,'" Phil said later. "It was her bubbly, positive attitude that got me going." In cold, windy and rainy conditions Mickelson played his final nine holes in 29 to get back in the tournament.

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