It's not just that Phil Mickelson won with a birdie on the 72nd hole at Colonial. It's how he won that has the golf world buzzing.
With the U.S. Open just a few weeks away, is Lefty peaking at the right time? Does his victory make him the prohibitive favorite at Torrey Pines? And will we finally get to see a Phil-Tiger battle on the back nine on a Sunday at a major next month?
ESPN.com golf writers Jason Sobel and Bob Harig answer those questions and more in their weekly e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.
Phil Mickelson said it was "probably top five" in his best career shots. I say it's the best we've seen all season. The shot I'm talking about, of course, is that 140-yard pitching wedge from deep in the left rough on the final hole at Colonial that somehow sailed over the trees and came to a stop nine feet from the pin, leading to birdie and the victory. For anyone else, it would have been the defining shot of a career; for Mickelson, it was just another day at the office. Then again, if we wanted to be cynical, it's easy enough to simply say: Hit it left enough times with a tournament on the line and you're bound to get one right at some point. Isn't that right, Bob?
Well, I was about to say that the only thing missing was a hospitality tent and the only person missing was Johnny Miller. Lefty has hit a few can't-forget shots to the left, none bigger than the U.S. Open two years ago at Winged Foot, where his wayward driver off a hospitality venue had Miller screaming in the booth. That day, Phil went for the heroic shot and it cost him a major title. The Colonial is obviously not as big, but I guess we saw why he goes for it in such a situation. He thinks he can pull it off, and this time he did.
And this is why he's known as the People's Champion. As I wrote in the Weekly 18, fans don't want to root for guys who lay up and play it safe. Fans want to root for players who, when they hit it way left, still try to go for the flagstick from some inane angle. That's Mickelson in a nutshell. When he fails, his strategy is questioned and people wonder what he was thinking. But when he succeeds by playing this patented brand of swashbuckling golf, he's lauded for his efforts, praised for his ingenuity, cheered for his skill. All of which makes him as much of a fan favorite as anyone in the game since Arnold Palmer.
True, but what happens if that second shot hits the top of the tree branch and falls right down? Then we are focused much more on the drive that got away, the shot that seems to kill Phil in the biggest moments. It cost him a win last year at L.A., too. This time, he was able to overcome the bad drive and give us one of the signature moments of the year.
You're absolutely right, Bob, but it's those failures and the obvious shortcomings in his game -- this left-off-the-tee thing with a tourney on the line is more than coincidence -- that make him such a compelling figure. If he piped one down the fairway, then got up and down, we'd already have moved on to bigger and better issues at this point in the discussion. If nothing else, though, Phil always gives us something to talk about.
Which, of course, leads us to more, specifically the U.S. Open in a few weeks. We were going to talk a lot about Phil going into that tournament, anyway. He's practically a regular at Torrey Pines. He's a native of San Diego. He loves the course. Now he's got a victory under his belt heading into the second major. Does Phil get the third leg of the career Grand Slam?
I'll let you in on a little secret: I was leaning toward picking Mickelson to win the Open even before his triumph at Colonial, and I don't see how his latest success should do anything to make me think otherwise. As we've seen from Phil over the years, when he's hot, he's hot. I could see Sunday's win serving as a springboard to another major, just as his title in Atlanta two years ago led to his second Masters victory. Sure, some might discredit Mickelson at an Open venue because of his propensity to miss the short stuff off the tee, but long and strong is more in favor recently than the straight and narrow, as recent champs Angel Cabrera and Geoff Ogilvy fit the Mickelson mold, too.
I'm sure you are not forgetting that Tiger might have something to say about all of this, although nobody is quite ready to hand him the trophy like they were in January when he won at the Buick at Torrey Pines for the fourth straight year. He seemed automatic then. But we haven't seen him hit a golf ball since April 13 at the Masters, and who knows how his recovery from knee surgery is progressing?
Through the rumor mill, I've heard only good things about his progress and plan to find out more when I attend his press conference to promote the AT&T National on Tuesday. (Who knew that I'd actually see more of Woods there than you'll see of him at Muirfield Village?) But any pro-Mickelson sentiment doesn't have to be anti-Woods at the same time. We've been waiting close to a dozen years to see these two guys battle it out, head-to-head, down the stretch at a major championship. If it's ever going to happen, Torrey Pines sure seems like the ideal situation, doesn't it?
It would be the perfect place. Both are natives of Southern California. Both have had an abundance of success at Torrey Pines. And they are clearly Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Phil's win will only bolster his confidence. Tiger's knee injury takes away a bit of his can't-miss aura. But Tiger has come back strong from long layoffs before. If Woods is healthy, we might not ever have a better chance of seeing them go head-to-head in a major.
And with all of this anticipation, we should probably expect a final-round final pairing of ... Rod Pampling and Ryuji Imada. Or something like that. These things never seem to come to fruition when we most expect them, so let's not set our sights too high. And before we get to the Open, there's a big tourney this week at Jack's place. So, what are you most looking forward to at the Memorial?
The tournament is expected to have eight of the top 10 in the world, excluding Tiger and Adam Scott. Sergio Garcia is back for the first time since his Players win. Phil tries to gain more momentum toward the Open. Ernie Els comes back across the Atlantic after a surprising missed cut at his home course, Wentworth. It is not exactly a tune-up for the Open, which is just two weeks away. But it is sure to offer some insight into who might be rounding into form.
Then again, only two players in the 32-year history of the Memorial have pulled off the distinction of winning that event then following up with a U.S. Open victory -- Curtis Strange in 1988 and Woods in 2000. So maybe we shouldn't place too much stock in anything we "learn" this week.
Good point. A victory at Muirfield Village might not mean anything. But if Mickelson pulls off another magical finish, we might have to wonder.