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A Golfing Great - No Kidding

Phil Mickelson doesn't remember when he first picked up a golf club-probably because his mother was still putting together his baby book. His blue book with the padded cover and white ribbon is likely a little bit different from most: first tooth ... first word ... first step ... first birthday ... first birdie...

Folks don't remember much of what they were doing when they were 15 months old. But that happened to be the first time Master Mickelson wielded a golf club in his Del Cerro backyard. He has seen pictures, though no one at the time could have realized the significance of the moment. In retrospect, it was like the first time Michael Jackson gripped a microphone or Picasso a paintbrush.

Phil Mickelson, at 26, was arguably the world's foremost golfer in 1996. History is written over careers, not years-but Mickelson could well go to the head of the class among the great golfing professionals produced in the San Diego area. That rather formidable roll call includes Paul Runyan, Gene Littler, Billy Casper, Craig Stadler and Scott Simpson, all of whom have won at least one of the four "major" tournaments: U.S. Open, Masters, British Open and PGA. Young Phil already has finished fourth or better in all but the British Open, one major no one from San Diego ever has won.

Indeed, all potentially great golfers-and it's almost time to scrub the word "potentially" when discussing Mickelson-bring a sense of history to the table. Jack Nicklaus, for one, had it. And so does the kid from University of San Diego High School. He has appreciated the drama of those Sunday afternoons at such places as Augusta, Winged Foot, Shinnecock and St. Andrews since he was at an age when most youngsters were enthralled by Super Bowls, World Series and Saturday-morning cartoons.

"I've very much wanted to play golf for a living since I was too young to understand how many try, as opposed to how many are able to make it," he says. "I just looked at it like all I had to do was practice and work hard and I'd play the PGA Tour. I watched golf and taped all of the tournaments on television. The majors were really exciting to me."

The genesis of Mickelson's interest in golf undoubtedly comes from the fact that his father, Phil, is such an avid amateur golfer that he has a 35-yard "hole" in the Del Cerro backyard. The senior Mickelson-"retired a couple, three times," in his words-still can play the game. "It's all relative," he says. "My index [handicap] is probably somewhere around a 5 now." He says that apologetically, as if 99.9 percent of the world's golfers would not be green with envy. "Of course, I've been at it a long time."

If young Phil's memory bank does not have a deposit dating back to when he was 15 months old, his father's does. The elder Mickelson recalls that his son got his first club when he was three months old, that being a bit of a joke-like Grandpa giving a newborn his first baseball glove. It was sometime after that, a year to be imprecise, that a quizzical toddler was watching his father and yearning to swing that club.

"He was watching me swing right-handed," his father recalls. "I'd set him up where I was standing, and he would turn around and hit left-handed. He was hitting the way he saw me hit it. It was a right-handed club, so I kept turning him around, and he kept turning back to left-handed. Remarkably, he seemed comfortable and he wasn't swinging that badly, so I decided I'd just change the golf club rather than the swing."

To this day, Phil Mickelson does nothing left-handed except swing a golf club. Absolutely nothing. How fortuitous it was that his father had the flexibility to accede to the instincts of a "golfer" who was barely out of diapers (if in fact he was). He may well have scored his first "ace," albeit all of 35 yards, before he was potty trained. His first "paychecks" came in the form of dime and quarter rewards for holes in one, which, the senior Mickelson avers, started to get expensive.

"That club," Papa Mickelson says with a smile, "went with him everywhere he went. It was like his teddy bear. As long as it was next to him, he was ready to go to sleep. I remember once he ran away from home with that golf club. He got frustrated because he wanted to go with me and play a regular course, so he and a friend took off to find a golf course. He'd ask the neighbors for directions and they kept directing him to turn right. He kept following their directions, and, of course, he ended up back in front of the house."

It was only a matter of time before that club-and a couple of others-made it to a "real" golf course. Mickelson, his father, his grandfather and a family friend went out to play Balboa Park. Their starting time was set for the 18-hole regulation course, not the nine-holer. The starter looked askance at the group, but after considerable persuasion they were allowed to go to the first tee. Master Mickelson was all of 31¼2.

"He was at that age when he could walk well," his father recalls, "but he was running awkwardly. He'd hit the ball and then run after it and hit it again. He didn't slow us down at all."

When they came to the bottom of the hill looking up at the 18th hole, the youngster asked if they had to play that hole. It is an intimidating hole even for adults, weary after 17 holes, and the group assumed that the toddler was finally tiring out. They smiled at him and suggested as much.

"Isn't this the last hole?" the 31¼2-year-old asked. "If we play this, we'll be done. I don't want to have to stop."

He never has. By the time Phil was 9, he had a job at what was then Navajo Canyon (now Mission Trails). If he cleaned the parking lot and picked up trash, he could hit balls and-tra la!-occasionally get out on the course itself. That was utopia. It doesn't get much better than that, nor do 9- or 19-year-olds get much better than Mickelson had already become.

"When he was 10, I came home from a trip," his father says, "and we went out to Navajo Canyon. He shot a 73, and I shot an 81. That was the first time he beat me."

When the Mickelsons arrived home, father and son, the youngster seemed impatient. They were in the kitchen with Phil's mother, Mary, and the small talk families talk didn't seem to be extending to the just-played game of golf. Father and son had played many a round together by then, but this one was a milestone.

Finally, Phil nudged his father: "Aren't you going to tell her?" Phil himself would not. It was not his nature then and it is not his nature now to talk about his own game. He has no braggadocio. When his day comes to don the green coat worn by the Masters champion, as it surely will, his face will likely be ruddy with embarrassment. His temperament is more a demure "Aw, shucks" than an exulting "Aw-RIGHT!"

When, for example, Mickelson is asked how good a player he had been in his younger youth, he demurs. "That's not a question for me to answer," he says. "That's for other people." Ask him the same question about the 1996 Phil Mickelson, who won four tournaments and earned $1.7 million, and his answer is the same. The difference is that the aforementioned numbers speak quite loudly on his behalf.

Of course, Mickelson has been beating the world's best golfers for a very long time ... in his backyard. "He wanted to make shots meaningful," his father explains, "so he'd have imaginary competitions against guys like Watson, Nicklaus and Palmer. He'd put himself in positions where he'd have to make a shot. He hasn't lost yet."

If anything had at least a shared priority with golf, it was education. Phil went to Uni High in San Diego and onward to Arizona State University. It was while he was a junior at ASU that he beat the guys he had been beating for all those years in his backyard. He won the PGA Tour's Northern Telecom Open (Tuscon), but rejected the check to retain his amateur status for the remainder of that junior year and all of his senior year.

A six-figure payday had to be tempting for a student living in a Tempe apartment. "What good does it do you to make a lot of money if you don't have the horse sense and education to know what to do with it?" his father asked him.

That tournament victory was pivotal, even without the accompanying check. And it wasn't that an amateur had never won a tour event before. The first of four, in fact, was fellow San Diegan Gene Littler, who won the 1954 San Diego Open as an amateur. In Littler's day, a victory did not come with the perks Mickelson could enjoy as a result of his 1991 triumph in what is known on the tour as the Nortel.

"Every win is special," says Mickelson, "but that one did a lot for me. I suppose what was most important was that it gave me an exemption and let me finish college and come out on the tour without going to qualifying school. And it proved that I was able to win on the tour before I turned professional."

These are perks with value both in terms of peace of mind and financial security, which often are one and the same. Qualifying school can be an anguished, agonizing experience, what with more than a thousand pros trying to squeeze into a very few openings on the tour itself. That's one school no golfer cares to attend. Financial security came from the almost instant credibility, which came in the form of the sponsorship money that plugs the drain of expenses incurred traveling to the four corners of the United States ... and beyond.

Mickelson thus was able to concentrate on the game he had been playing since he was 15 months old. He came out on the tour in 1992, following his senior year at ASU. Winning was not as easy as it had been in his Del Cerro imagination. He played in seven tournaments as a pro and finished as high as second once. He earned $171,714.

And then, early in 1993, Mickelson made his professional breakthrough. He did it with a victory in the Buick Invitational of California, which just so happens to have been played-as it will be next month-at a course very familiar to him. Torrey Pines.

"Winning at Torrey Pines was special for a number of reasons," he says. "First of all, I hadn't won since turning professional six months earlier. The win here at Torrey Pines got me started. And it meant a lot to me because I'd gone out there as a kid and watched the pros play. They were doing what I ultimately wanted to do, but I couldn't believe how low they were shooting out there. I guess that was where my dream actually started ... watching the pros at Torrey Pines."

Mickelson enters the 1997 season with nine victories on the PGA Tour, including that amateur win in 1991. He also enters this year as part of a rivalry that figures to define professional golf into the 21st century: He and Tiger Woods, another product of Southern California's junior programs, could well be the Nicklaus-Palmer of their generation.

The 1997 tour starts on Mickelson's turf. He has developed a particular affinity for the Southwest, specifically San Diego and Arizona. The former is, of course, his boyhood home; the latter, his adopted home. He won the Nortel for the third time in 1996 and followed that two weeks later with a win in the Phoenix Open, making him the first since Johnny Miller (1975) to sweep the two Arizona events. He followed the 1993 Buick Invitational title with the 1994 Mercedes Championship at La Costa, giving him victories in both San Diego County tournaments. This month's Mercedes contest opens his 1997 campaign.

"It's nice to play in front of family and friends," he says. "You rarely have that kind of backing in the other cities on the tour." However, golf, by nature, is a solitary game, even when played in front of supportive multitudes. This aspect has appealed to Mickelson since he was old enough to remember, whenever that might have been.

"I played a lot of sports, particularly before I got to high school," he comments. "I played football and basketball and baseball and soccer, but you rely so much on how your teammates play in those sports. I enjoy golf because it's an individual sport where the result is based solely on me. I know of great players in sports like basketball and baseball and football, and everyone asks questions about the championships they haven't won."

A local example, it is suggested, would be the Chargers' Dan Fouts. "Exactly," Mickelson says. "And he was one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of pro football."

Any questions about Phil Mickelson will be answered with eloquence by his golf game. Except maybe the one about how it all started back in that Del Cerro backyard.
Editor's note: San Diego plays host to two major PGA golf tournaments each year in January and February. The action starts this month with the 1997 Mercedes Championships, featuring the winners of the 1996 PGA Tour events and the British Open champion. The Mercedes runs January 6-12 at La Costa Resort & Spa, 2100 Costa del Mar Rd., Carlsbad. More information: 1-800-918-GOLF.

The $1.3 million Buick Invitational Golf Tournament is February 3-9 at the Torrey Pines courses, 11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. During the run, golfing legends Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper and Gene Littler will be inducted into the tournament's Walk of Fame. More information: 281-4653.

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