Mickelson proves golf is cyclical
Another week, another win for Phil Mickelson.
Excuse us if we don't get too excited. After all, we've seen this before. OK, maybe it wasn't Phil winning consecutive tournaments; maybe it was Vijay Singh last year or Tiger Woods a few seasons ago. What was shaping up as the Year of the Champion -- the first five winners this season all ranked in the top 17 of the World Ranking -- could be transforming into the Year of Phil, right before our very eyes.
It proves golf is a cyclical game, which is where the Weekly 18 begins.
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time in this world -- not so long ago or far away -- that Mickelson was not the dominant golfer he is today. Think, if you can, all the way back to 2003 ...
Entering his 12th full season on the PGA Tour, Mickelson owned 21 titles but no majors -- which spawned the label Best Player To Never Win A Major.
Then his game started to falter. Mickelson's free-wheeling, riverboat-gambler style of play fell victim to more bogeys than birdies. It wasn't, mind you, the kind of downturn that former No. 1 player David Duval is experiencing now, complete with scores in the mid-80s and hordes of missed cuts. Rather, it was the kind of season where Phil had a handful of top-10 finishes, finished 38th on the money list and failed to win an event.
In effect, it was the year Mickelson was mediocre.
After these last two weeks, 2003 seems like decades ago. Mickelson now owns four wins in his last 26 events, including, of course, last year's Masters. He surpassed Retief Goosen to reclaim the No. 4 spot in the World Ranking last week and will obviously continue to move higher if he keeps winning events. How well did Phil play at Pebble Beach? His opening three rounds were 23 strokes better than those of Singh, the top-ranked player in the world.
Mickelson's win was his first ever for back-to-back victories, his first wire-to-wire win and the first 72-hole solo wire-to-wire win in Pebble Beach Pro-Am history.
More than that, it signified that 2003 is an awfully long time ago.
You may recall the motto "Chicks dig the long ball" from a television commercial a few years back, but it's becoming apparent that the long ball has a pretty fair effect on checks, too. During the past few weeks, Mickelson has often noted that each of the players whom he trailed in the World Ranking at the end of last year also ranked better in driving distance. Singh averaged 300.8 yards off the tee in '04; Woods 301.9; and Ernie Els 298.0, while Mickelson was a mere 295.4.) It may not seem like much, but armed with that knowledge, Phil has decided to recapture his go-for-it spirit, preferring to drive the ball as far as possible, rather than simply keeping it in the fairway. The result is that Mickelson has finished third (at Pebble) and 12th in driving distance during the past two weeks, but T-55 and T-51 in driving accuracy.
Pebble Beach is the tournament's namesake, but make no mistake, Spyglass Hill is the toughest course in the Pro-Am's three-course rotation. So just how good was Mickelson's opening-round 62 at the famed course on Thursday? There have been rumblings that it exceeded his 60 in the second round of last week's FBR Open and even the 59 he shot at the relatively benign Poipu Bay course in the Grand Slam. Opinions are one thing, but here are the facts: Mickelson's 62 broke the course record by two strokes and bested the average score that day by more than 10 shots. Pretty impressive stuff.
Further proof that Mickelson's first round really was magical (or, more likely, further proof that he is still the People's Champion), from fellow pro Kevin Sutherland, who was playing at Poppy Hills that day: "We were on the 18th tee, and it's amazing to say this, but we heard a roar," Sutherland said. "That's got to be a couple miles away. We heard it pretty easily, and I thought it can only be one person. I'm not sure it was him, but a 62 at Spyglass? I'm sure it was."
Sure, Mickelson's week was impressive, but at least he's played the Pebble Beach courses before. Not so for PGA Tour rookie Greg Owen. The fourth-place finisher in December's Q School, Owen had never played the Pebble triumvirate, but used knowledge based on video games to make his way around for the week, finishing in third place.
With no NHL season so far, many fans north of the border turned their attention to fellow Canadian Mike Weir, but he hadn't given them much to cheer for until this week. Weir scored a T-13 at the limited-field Mercedes, then missed the cut at the Bob Hope and finished T-61 at the FBR. But the lefty shot a final-round 67 -- hitting 14 of 14 fairways -- to finish in second place at Pebble, turning his game around just in time to make a run at a third consecutive Nissan Open title this week.
The second-longest (and second-most famous) streak in golf is over. Singh had made the cut in 28 consecutive events entering the Pro-Am, but shot three rounds of 73 to miss the final round for the first time since last season's Buick Invitational. Singh became the fourth straight defending champion to miss the cut at Pebble Beach. For the record, Tiger Woods will put his streak of 135 straight made cuts on the line at the Nissan Open this week.
It's always interesting to watch Matt Gogel at Pebble Beach. Five years ago, he was the third-round co-leader, but gave up seven strokes to Tiger Woods over the final seven holes and eventually finished T-2. The next year he put himself in position to win with a second-round 62 at Poppy Hills, but followed that with a third-round 81 at Spyglass Hill and wound up T-27. In 2002, he finally broke through for his first and only career win on tour, then suffered back-to-back missed cuts in the next two seasons. By comparison, Gogel had a pretty uneventful week this year, shooting 3 under to finish T-43.
Shaun Micheel and Brad Faxon were among the players looking to earn enough World Ranking points at Pebble Beach to move into the top 64 and qualify for the Accenture Match Play Championship in two weeks. Instead, they each failed to make the cut. Micheel, who ranked 66th entering the week, and Faxon, who ranked 70th, can still make the field if some players withdraw. Right now, the top 65 are in; Ernie Els has already pulled out of the event.
Entering this week, Craig Stadler had played in 11 straight Pebble Beach Pro-Ams and other than the cancellation in '96, he made the cut in every single one of 'em. Until this week, that is. Stads shot a third-round 77 to miss the cut by seven strokes, making Pebble the first full-field event of the season in which no 50-or-over player made the cut.
Congrats to Chris Berman, a friend of the Weekly 18, on making the cut in his first Pebble Beach Pro-Am this week. Teamed with Jeff Sluman (and paired with Scott Simpson and Bill Murray for the tournament's first three days), the duo shot 67-63-64 to make the final round by two strokes. Boomer was supposed to report to Honolulu for ESPN's coverage of the Pro Bowl on Sunday, but received an excused absence. Besides, who hasn't thought of playing hooky and hitting the golf course instead once in a while?
Robert Allenby is 44th in the current World Ranking, but the 33-year-old Australian has faltered this season. Before skipping Pebble Beach, Allenby missed three cuts and picked up a T-45 at the FBR. He stood at 133rd on the money list entering the week with only $15,652 in earnings.
Keep an eye out for Camilo Villegas ... if you can find him. The 23-year-old from Colombia is already one of the brighter stars on the horizon. A 2004 University of Florida grad, Villegas won eight collegiate tournaments, then earned medalist honors in U.S. Open qualifying last year in his first event as a professional. Later in the season he pulled a T-7 at the B.C. Open and made the cut in four other PGA Tour events. Two weeks ago, Villegas finished T-2, one stroke out of first place at the Nationwide Tour's BellSouth Panama Championship. He then traveled to Australia, grabbing a T-10 at the Heineken Classic with four rounds of par-or-better, before missing the cut at this week's New Zealand Open. Need further proof this guy is for real? In November, he won an NGA/Hooters Tour event by 10 strokes, shooting an unbelievable 61-62-65.
Recent television commercials have brought us an outraged Donald Duck (who can't believe ESPN's Dream Job judges think he's speaking too fast) and an incensed Aflac duck (who can't believe anyone wouldn't buy the insurance he's hawking). But neither of those compare to the angry supporters of Daphne the duck, who couldn't believe what happened to the New Zealand-born bird recently. A resident of the Golf Harbour Country Club in Auckland, Daphne was killed during an authorized cull of paradise ducks that were damaging the course. Backers of the famed fowl dug holes in three of the greens and sprayed the word "murderers" across the 12th green just days before it was to host the New Zealand Open. The event, which was sanctioned by the Australasian Tour and, for the first time, the European Tour, went on as planned, with Niclas Fasth defeating Miles Tunnicliff on the second playoff hole.
After a four-year hiatus, the Women's World Cup returned this week. Featuring 20 two-woman teams with such big names as Meg Mallon, Lorena Ochoa and Laura Davies, the star of the show was only 14 years old the last time the event was played. Japan's Ai Miyazato teamed with Rui Kitada to defeat South Korea and the Philippines by two strokes, but it was the 19-year-old Miyazato who carried the team on the final day of individual stroke play. As Kitada struggled to an 82, Miyazato shot a Sunday 67 -- more than 10 strokes better than the average final-round score. Last season, Miyazato won five times on the Japan LPGA Tour as a rookie.
What in the name of Costantino Rocca got into the Italian team at the World Cup this week? Known more for producing skiers and soccer players than golfers, Italy's unheralded team of Diana Luna and Giulia Sergas was one shot off the pace heading into the final round. Alas, solo final rounds of 78 by Sergas and 79 by Luna left the duo at T-10, nine strokes behind Japan.
In the months of January and February, the Nationwide Tour played an event in the nation of Panama, the Canadian Tour's Winter Q School will be played in Eustis, Fla., and Chino Hills, Calif., (neither of which, ESPN.com has learned, are in Canada) and the European Tour made its way to Singapore, Australia, New Zealand -- everywhere, seemingly, except Europe.
"Every time I miss a shot, even when I hit an OK shot, I get fired. Unless it's right next to the pin, I get fired every time."
--Donald Trump on the crowd reaction toward his golf game at Pebble Beach.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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