Phil Mickelson began yesterday’s round with confidence, and not just because of his history of outstanding showings at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am. True, self-assurance has never been a weakness; when he claimed the tournament last year, for instance, he figured it to be the trigger for an outstanding campaign. Instead, it proved to be mostly downhill from there, with his world ranking tumbling down 55 spots to 72nd by the time he went about his title defense. All the same, he remained upbeat, in no small measure because of his third-place showing at the Saudi International.
As things turned out, Mickelson wasn’t quite right in his assessment. He came close, greeting his final 18 holes a mere shot off the lead and then tying for it after just two. And, with Nick Taylor, his biggest threat, not exactly a lock under pressure given just one win — an opposite-field stop to boot — in the last five years, he deemed himself in prime position to prevail. Unfortunately, the wind had other plans, and his planned march to glory wound up being derailed by the elements. By the time nature was done with the course, he could do no better than post a 74, five shots off the pace.
In typical fashion, Mickelson’s scorecard was full of colors. He carded birdies in three of his first six holes, signaling to all and sundry that he meant business. Taylor, however, was even better over the same span, coming up with two birdies and an eagle to raise the advantage. Still, he appeared to be on track — that is, until the eighth, when a seemingly safe shot off the tee found trouble and necessitated (at least to him) an aggressive response, leading to him overshooting the flag. Two more strong strokes would then set up double bogey.
Mickelson would actually get to within two of Taylor with four holes to play, but it was fool’s gold. As evidenced by two more bogeys to offset a lone birdie after the turn, he hadn’t been playing well to that point. And, true enough, another bogey against his opponent’s two birdies the rest of the way made for the final scores. From his standpoint, though, his performance was enough to underscore his progress. Needless to say, top of mind for him is outright entry to the United States Open, which he pledged not to join on an exemption.
Make no mistake. Mickelson wants to be at Winged Foot in June. He’s heck bent on exorcising the demons that plagued his ill-fated run for the title in 2006. And in addition to being the major that has given him the most number of heartbreaks, it happens to host the only title missing from his stellar Grand Slam resume. Will he finally win? At this point, the more relevant query pertains to his chance of qualifying. He believes he will, just as he believes victory is in his grasp. He is who he is, even at 49, and even when his game has most definitely seen better days.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.