Failure Fuels Me

June 18, 2006. A day that could have changed the landscape of golf as we knew it. Phil Mickelson was four shots away from his third straight major, 75% of the way to the Mickel-Slam. Was this the day Lefty would finally catch up to Tiger? Not quite. What happened that day—and during the remainder of the season—didn't change golf at all. It simply restored the game to the same order we'd known for the past decade: It's Tiger's World, and the rest of the PGA Tour just lives in it. Nine months later, then, Mickelson must still be beating himself up over the missed opportunity of a lifetime, right?

Don't bet on it.

I'd hit driver again.

No question.

Put me on the 18th hole at Winged Foot, needing par to win, and I'm doing exactly what I tried to do last June: carve a baby slice and chase it down the fairway to set up an iron to the green, two-putt for my first U.S. Open and my third straight major.

The thought of hitting a 3-wood never crossed my mind. Still doesn't. First of all, I didn't even have a 3-wood in my bag that day. I was carrying a 4-wood. But the point is, 18 at Winged Foot is a 450-yard right-to-left hole. A 4-wood for me there is too likely to end up short left or long right. I'm trying to win the tournament. I need to make par. And my best chance is with the driver.

If you're wondering what my caddie had to say, let me tell you straight up that in 15 years, Bones [Jim Mackay] has never been blamed for giving me the wrong device. It's always my choice. I can live with my mistakes. I can't live with his. I can live with going for it and not pulling it off. What I'm not okay with is doing something I'm less than 100% committed to and still not having it work. I don't play that way.

People say it all the time: I take too many risks, and it costs me titles. I've been hearing for years that I have to change my style in order to win. Well, let me ask this: Are Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Lee Trevino, Davis Love and Fred Couples great players? Of course they are. Those are some of the game's most heralded names. And somehow, I've won more PGA Tour events than any of them. So I have to wonder: Shouldn't my game be emulated more than criticized? Should I change my style and win less? Or should more players try to do what I do and maybe win more? Just throwing it out there.

Anyway, nine months later, everyone remembers what happened with the driver on 18. I overcut the shot, hit it way left. Then I overcut my second shot and hit a tree. The third went deep in the sand, and that was it: double bogey and the huge disappointment of letting a really big one get away. Tack on the fact that I didn't contend at the British Open or the PGA Championship—plus the poor showing we all had at the Ryder Cup—and suddenly, after I began the season with a Green Jacket, 2006 becomes a year I'd like to forget.

Only I don't forget the bad times. I learn from them.

Failure fuels me. Championships would not feel as good if it weren't for the disappointments along the way. Put it this way: It was tough at the 2005 Masters to put the Green Jacket on Tiger Woods when he took back the title I'd won in 2004. But it made Tiger's putting it back on me last year 10 times sweeter.

I know people want to get inside my head. I know it because I'm asked all the time if I can come back from what happened at Winged Foot. I'm not going to tell you it's easy to come back from something like that, but I've done it before, and it's my intention to do it again.

I also know people are intrigued about where I think I stand in comparison with Tiger. I understand that if I'd been able to close out the Open, I'd have joined Tiger and Ben Hogan—an elite pair if ever there was one—as the only players to win three straight majors since Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930. And there's no denying that would've been very cool. But the reality is, even if I play at the top of my game for the rest of my career and achieve my goals—let's say, win 50 tournaments and 10 majors, pretty difficult to do, since I'd need 20 more wins, including seven more majors—I still won't get to where Tiger is right now. So I won't compare myself with him. It makes no sense. I'm playing perhaps the greatest player ever while he's in his prime. It sucks losing to him, for sure, but it's a great challenge. I love trying to beat him.

And if you're wondering if I look back at Winged Foot with more regret because Tiger had missed the cut and it was—as people have said to me—a chance to kick him when he was down, absolutely not. To win majors requires complete focus on what you're doing, not on what anyone else is doing. When you're in contention on Sunday, whether you win or lose, you end up emotionally and physically drained. Obviously, when you win, there's euphoria to go along with exhaustion, and when you lose there's despair. Remember what I said in the pressroom afterward? "I'm such an idiot" and "I can't believe I did that." That's the raw emotion of the moment. When the dust settles, a competitor moves on.

And let's not forget, I was 0-for-my-first-42 majors. I failed at the PGA Championship in 2001, when I three-putted 16. And I failed at the 2004 U.S. Open, when I double-bogeyed 17. Every one of those tournaments ended in heartbreaking, gut-wrenching fashion. Back before I'd won a major, every one of those losses felt like the end of the world. But every time, I tried to learn something. My three-putt at the 2001 PGA forced me to take a long, hard look at my lag putting. I sought the help of Dave Pelz, who gave me a series of drills to improve that part of my game, and it wasn't long before I'd won two Masters and a PGA on some really fast greens.

I looked back on last year's Open and realized

it wasn't just the 18th hole. My driving needed work. I hit only two fairways on Sunday. I really believe that the ghosts of former USGA presidents were looking down and saying, "No one should win the Open hitting two of 14 fairways." So I've been working with my swing coach, Rick Smith, on a couple of shots to use when I need to keep it in play, a shot I can fall back on that I know I can get into the fairway. That's been my main focus this off-season, working on the range, on the course and with the Callaway technicians to get a driver that works best for my needs.

The other thing I took away from 2006 is that I needed to get in better shape. My performance at the Ryder Cup (0—4—1) was every bit as disappointing as my finish at the U.S. Open. But as opposed to a game-specific problem like driving, it was a physical thing. I didn't hold up throughout the nine months of the season, and it really showed at the Ryder Cup, when I had to play 36 holes a day. So I did a lot with my trainer, Sean Cochran, who's a martial arts expert. In fact, in the first few months of the off-season, the only real work I did was on the physical side. For three or four months, I wasn't playing golf. But I was getting refreshed and excited about the game again. And I got into a workout routine to try to get into better shape, golf-specific exercises like the physioball, for stabilizing and building core strength, and a martial arts routine for balance. I immediately lost 25 pounds, then put back about 10 to 15 of muscle. I'm hoping this regimen improves my stamina so that I'll be able to have a stronger finish.

When I did get back to playing the game, I had a little bit different musculature and a little bit faster swing, so I had to get my timing down. I'm reasonably happy with the results so far, but I'm pretty much like most fans when it comes to the first several months of the season. It's just a leadup to the greatest tournament of them all.

The Masters.

I love everything about it. I'll go play the course five or six times when the Tour hits the East Coast. Not to prepare for the tournament, just to go. I love sitting in the Champions Locker Room for breakfast. I love having the junior club sandwich for lunch after we play. For every golfer out there who has dreamed of playing Augusta National, I can tell you it's even better than what you've imagined. The fairways are like carpet, and the greens are so pure you feel like you're in heaven. Even the driving range has the most pristine grass. The place is surreal. History is made there every year. I can't get enough of it.

And as much as it's been written that I've played Augusta more conservatively in recent years, I've never swung the club harder in my life than I did at the 2004 Masters. Or the 2006 Masters. Or any Masters, for that matter.

The game's still got to be fun for me, and it doesn't get any more fun than at Augusta. If I'm just hitting 3-wood off the tee, 5-iron in the middle of the fairway and a wedge to 30 feet for a two-putt … I mean, what's fun about that? That doesn't excite me. And if I'm not excited to play golf, I'm not going to play well. I want it to be as close as possible to the same game I played as a kid. When I was in my backyard, where my dad built me a green and a sand trap, if I just chipped and putted, it'd get monotonous. So I'd go behind the olive tree and try to hit a lob shot and spin it. I would spend two or three hours out there hitting shots around trees, off dirt, whatever I could dream up. No way I'd have spent as much time out there if I had just been hitting the same shot over and over. That has never gotten out of my system. No disrespect, but if you miss the fairway at the U.S. Open, the rough is so thick, you're dead. All you can do is hack it back into play. At the Masters they have a first cut, but it's not really rough, and you can play out of it. The U.S. Open doesn't test all of your skills because the penalty for a missed fairway is so severe, there's no chance to recover. I think that's why I love the Masters so much. It's a more complete test than the Open.

I also love applying the lessons I've learned over the years at Augusta. I've hit every putt on that course 10 times, if not more. Bones would get mad if I gave too much information away, but let me say it took a long time to realize that the course plays much differently for the practice rounds from the way it does during the actual tournament, especially around the greens. I'm thinking about adding a 64° wedge to the bag this year, and I'll be giving it a test run Monday through Wednesday. Augusta National's a complete test of your shotmaking. Just thinking about it gets my heart pounding.

I've been around long enough to know that a lot of fans—golf fans and just plain sports fans—want to see me and Tiger go head-to-head in the final pairing on Sunday. It's happened only three times since we've been on Tour together and only once in a major, the 2001 Masters, which Tiger won. This year it's Tiger who's going for three majors in a row. I understand fans are craving someone to step up and become Tiger's archrival. The fans and media have been clamoring for me to be that guy for years now, to the point that

I still get asked about a comment I made four years ago about Tiger's "inferior equipment." I don't even want to go there, but it was meant as a compliment. The guy was beating all of us even though he wasn't taking advantage of the technology—bigger, longer, lighter drivers; hotter balls; you name it—that the rest of us were using. Well, now he does, and I can't sniff him off the tee. I'm not even considered long these days. But remember, guys like J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson hit it past Tiger, and they can't beat him. Like I said, he might be the greatest player of all time, and he's just entering his prime.

Still, for the two of us to meet on Sunday at Augusta, we both have to play better than the other 90-odd players in the field. It's what the fans want to see. And guess what? I want it too.