In 1992 I traveled with the University of Texas Golf Team to the NCAA Golf Championships in Albuquerque, NM. Walking up and down the practice range, you encountered scores of "flat bellies" whose fluid swings were picture perfect, players like David Duval and Justin Leonard. Then you walked up to watch Phil Mickelson.
You were struck by the different sound of the club meeting the ball -- a sharp crackling sound, almost like a .22 rifle. It was a distinctive sound unlike any of the others, and the only time I had encountered such a different sound to a sports swing was seeing/hearing Dave Winfield slap at baseballs in a batting cage. Both times, even fellow competitors would pause to marvel at the performance.
This afternoon Mickelson attempts to win his fourth Masters, and 20 years later, his swing is still creating that distinctive sound, and his imagination is still getting him in and out of trouble.
Mickelson won his 3rd NCAA individual title in '92 shooting a ridiculous 17 under par 271. He did so while coasting to a 2-over 74 on the final day. Even then the stories of his exploits were legendary. One collegiate golfer told the story of taking part in a junior exhibition with Mickelson.
He said Phil picked a young boy out of the crowd who was wearing a golf cap, had him take it off and hold it at his belt. Phil then dropped a ball yard behind the youngster -- and flopped it into the cap.
One UT golfer talked of playing with Phil in a collegiate tournament when they played a 200-yard par 3 -- fronted by water and surrounded by traps. Most of the golfers were ending up in the back bunkers because they couldn't hold their long irons on the green. Phil looked at the hole, put his tee to where it was barely in the ground -- then put a 9-iron swing on his 4-iron and popped the ball up and on the green, within 15 feet of the pin.
I also heard more than one person out there refer to his collegiate nickname "Eddie Haskell."
There was also the theory that he could become a victim of "Paralysis By Analysis." Mickelson has so much talent, and such an imagination that he sometimes goes into overload, and can't commit to a shot under pressure situations.
It may be why he was 0-46 in his first attempts to win a Major. Even after he broke though, he would still have his "WTF" moments.
At the 2006 U.S. Open, Phil was attempting to win his third Major in a row. He stands on the 18th tee on Sunday with a 1-shot lead, despite the fact that he had hit only one fairway all day. With his caddy Jim "Bones" Mackay, trying to get him to hit an iron, Phil grabs the driver -- and bounces it off the roof of a hospitality tent. Instead of taking his medicine and playing out of the woods back to the fairway, Phil attempts to play a massive slice shot to the green. He hits a branch 25 yards in front of him and ends up taking a double-bogey and finished out of a playoff by one shot.
But that was the U.S. Open.
This is the Masters. This is Augusta National, which begs for heroic efforts -- especially on the back 9.
Mickelson was 4-over par after his first 14 holes on Thursday. He is 12-under par since then, and he stands just one shot behind the leader, Sweden's Peter Hanson. Only one player on the first page of the leaderboard has won a Major besides Phil -- South African Louis Osthuizen.
The cliche is that the Masters doesn't begin until the back 9 on Sunday. That's where MIckelson's imagination can run wild, and where 4 or 5 shots can be made up in the blink of an eye.
Mickelson thrives on the back 9 at Augusta, especially the Par 5's No. 13 & 15. In his 77 career rounds at Augusta, Mickelson is 60-under par on #13.
There are some other golfers out there who could put pressure on the leaders and make it interesting: Bubba Watson, Padrig Harrington, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, etc. But the stage will belong to Phil Mickelson and the odds are he will decide if this play has a happy ending or turns into a farce.