Lefty looking to get it right

Phil Mickelson earned his third green jacket at Augusta National last April, but since then a myriad of distractions have contributed to his decline. Taku Miyamoto/Getty Images

At Riviera Country Club in L.A. one day this year, a PGA Tour player was stopped at the locker room door.

"I.D.?" the guard said.

"Really?" Phil Mickelson asked.

"I.D.?" the guard said again, without blinking.

"This is Phil Mickelson," I pointed out.

"I.D., please."

Whoa. Maybe American golf really is dead.

If it is, if the grand Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson era really has expired, let it be written that Tiger Woods' fatal wounds were self-inflicted while Mickelson's came from a piano falling on his head.

His wife got breast cancer. His mom got breast cancer. He got psoriatic arthritis so bad that he was walking up stairs at the U.S. Open like an 80-year-old man. He even gave up meat for a while. When Phil Mickelson, one of the great burger eaters in America today, gives up meat, you know it's serious.

Then somehow, his luck turned even worse.

"We've had a really scary time with [8-year-old son] Evan this year," Mickelson says. "There was a problem with his kidney. We think it must've been something that he got when we were in China [where Mickelson designs golf courses]. He was having to get tested every week and it really was worrying us. It looked like he was going to need surgery."

We've all known the golf gods hated Mickelson. Who knew God did, too?

Last season broke with such promise. He won the Masters with one of the most swashbuckling shots in history -- a 6-iron off pine straw through two trees you could have barely walked John Daly through, over Rae's Creek to four feet.

"He'd just birdied 12," says his caddy, Jim (Bones) Mackay. "And he said to me [over that shot], 'You know, if I'm going to win this tournament, I'm going to have to make a huge shot under a lot of pressure. I think this is the time.' What do you say to that? I'm going to tell him not to? The guy built my house!"

He won by three. The emotional hug with Amy. But then, by June, more trouble.

"I'd be laying in bed and it would be like my wrists and ankles were on fire," he says. Psoriatic arthritis. His left pointer finger wouldn't bend. Try to swing a driver like that. He tried vegetarianism. Phil Mickelson, owner of Five Guys burgers franchises, eating vegetables? It was like seeing a lion at a salad bar.

If it is, if the grand Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson era really has expired, let it be written that Tiger Woods' fatal wounds were self-inflicted while Mickelson's came from a piano falling on his head

At the U.S. Open, he'd finish his round, ride in the air-conditioned car for five minutes to the practice range and get out walking like Methuselah. He had to learn to inject himself in the thigh. "Freaky at first, but you get used to it," he says.

But what to put in the needles? They tried different medications, different doses, all of them with new side effects.

The timing couldn't have been worse. With Woods' life upside down, Mickelson had a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking in the world. Instead, he slid the other way. He fell from the doorsill of No. 1 to sixth today. Tiger is fifth.

"Two great players of the past," Johnny Miller called them.

But that's not how Mickelson feels.

With Amy getting better, with his mom improving, with his arthritis under control, his list of life-or-death worries was whittled down to Evan, a fret big enough to stare a hole in a bedroom ceiling.

"We were really kind of worried sick about him." he says. "But then, on the last test before he was going to need surgery, the test results showed that he was back to normal. Nobody knew why. And now he's doing great again. Really great again. So, wow, that was great, great news."

What will Phil do next? Finally catch a break.

"So, really, everything's going great now in my life. I believe and I hope that this year is what last year was supposed to be."

Which makes you ask: Yeah? When's it going to start?

So far, in six starts, he's had one second place, at Torrey Pines. Everything else has been exceedingly beige -- 35th in L.A., ninth at Pebble and a 55th at Doral that was so bad he decided to sign up for this week at Bay Hill, where he and Tiger will be in the field and not a single player will be scared. He's barely hitting half his fairways (176th on tour) and less than two out of every three greens (94th).

And yet he still thinks he can win the Masters. At 40. With arthritis. "I just need to have that one good scoring week," he says.

And if he doesn't? After what he's been through? Please. He's a changed man. He's just happy when another day comes and goes without some new ABC Movie of the Week opening up in his life.

"Like, take the Tuesday dinner thing," he says, referring to the traditional Champions Night dinner at the Masters he's compelled to host as last year's winner. "Guys cater in all this macaroni lobster and soft-shelled crab and then everybody just orders steaks anyway. I'm kind of thinking maybe I should just forget it. Let them order whatever they want. Or bring in burgers. I mean, there's a Five Guys right down the street, right?"

OK, not everything's changed.

Love the column, hate the column, got a better idea? Go here.

Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's new book, "Sports from Hell."