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December 06, 2001

Unful-Philled again
By Dan Patrick

Phil Mickelson has now lost two majors by a total of two strokes. Sunday, David Toms laid up on 18 to win, just as the late Payne Stewart had done in 1999 at Pinehurst to win the U.S. Open over Mickelson.

So I think we'll remember what Mickelson didn't do over this past weekend rather than what Toms did. Because Mickelson has been here before: a great, crowd-pleasing performance but still no major championship. We now add 2001 PGA at Atlanta to the too-long list of times that Phil Mickelson came close but fell short in a major.

Mickelson is entering Buffalo Bills territory. At this point he has more in common with Jim Kelly than Greg Norman.
Toms falls into the prototype of the PGA winner in that 11 of the last 14 winners of the PGA captured their first major victory there. Think of Mark Brooks, Steve Elkington or Jeff Sluman. A solid pro who picks the right weekend for everything to go right.

Not that things did not go well for Mickelson. He shot 66-66-66-68, which would have won every previous PGA championship. He got up and down out of the sand a few times and hit more than a few pins with his approach shots. He was on his game at a major. We are most definitely not talking about a choke here. He did not lose this major. And while that's a moral victory, it's still not a victory in a major.

What does this do to the 31-year-old Mickelson? He still has the tag "Best Golfer to Not Win a Major" -- and he'll wear it at least until next April at The Masters. We all want to rip the tag off his back and give it to Jim Furyk or Colin Montgomerie. And in a strange way, he has gathered more fans by not winning, especially with David Duval not sharing the load with him any more after winning the British Open. You could feel the gallery pulling for him to beat Toms, especially over the weekend.

Mickelson is entering Buffalo Bills territory. At this point he has more in common with Jim Kelly than Greg Norman. Norman has won two majors and lost two others to spectacular shots by Paul Azinger in sudden death at the 1993 PGA and to Larry Mize at the 1987 Masters. He shot a playoff round of 75 to lose to Fuzzy Zoeller at Winged Foot in the 1984 U.S. Open.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson caught David Toms several times on Sunday, but he could never get ahead.
But Norman's enduring image, at least for now, was his meltdown at the Masters in 1996. He blew a big lead over the course of some of the most painful professional sports competition I have ever seen. The bolts and screws were literally flying off his game on national TV on Sunday at a major. He fell apart. Mickelson has yet to do that. Like Kelly, he has been very, very good but has not won the big one yet.

If Mickelson ever starts to feel sorry for himself, and there is no evidence that he has, he can look at what happened to Norman for solace. Norman was quite creative in the ways he lost a few of his majors and he was taken to task for 1996 at Augusta. But Norman's solace is in his two British Open victories and in his reputation as one of the dominant golfers of his time. Right now, Mickelson doesn't have that.

So you wonder if this one will linger with Phil Mickelson. He seems to be searching for a different take on not winning a major. He has said that even if he wins one, he won't live up to the expectations people have had for him. The day after that mythical win at a major he won't be a better golfer than he is today, the day after a real-life, second-place finish at a major. It's just other people's perception of him -- and he tries not to get caught up in it. He deals with it for a couple of hours a week at each major.

But, again, I wonder if this 2001 PGA will linger with Mickelson or at least with our perception of him, graciously standing by, one shot short of a major again.

Unful-Philled. Again.

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