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Weather Turns Cold, Mickelson Heats up at Pebble Beach

By: Jay Flemma


Sometimes, momentum in golf is nothing more than just a good night's sleep.

On Thursday evening, the golf world was blasting Phil Mickelson. He wasted shots by taking ludicrous chances. A tree made him look silly. He needed a pedestrian 32 putts en route to a gloomy 4-over 75 in rare bluebird weather in the opening round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It looked like he shot himself out of the year's second major on the first day.

A day later, turning on a dime so fast he left scorched rubber, we marvel at Phil's electrifying 5-under 66. With five birdies in seven holes, (including four threes in a row), improvement in both fairways hit and greens in regulation, and an efficient 25 putts Mickelson authored the round of the tournament thus far.

Double sixes. Route 66. The wheelchairs. Whatever you want to call it, Phil grabbed Pebble Beach by the throat, put it up against the wall, and gave it a good shake before looking it square in the eye and saying, "I have not yet begun to fight."

And Pebble Beach responded to Phil's lightning with thunder. Where Pebble was quiet as a cathedral Thursday, so quiet you could hear the waves lap and the sea lions moan, after a day of near silence, the roars came yesterday and you could tell who they were for.

Remember the old "Tiger Roars?" They're back, and they're just has joyous and rollicking. But they're not Tiger roars this time.

Out on the course, you'd hear a quiet distant cheer, a small one. "Was that Phil" asked Janis Brooks, a fan from Malibu. "No," came the reply from Ben Salzberg, a fan from Scottsdale. "You'll know the difference when you hear it."

Seconds later, the stands erupt. Everyone's attention is commanded as it builds to a shriek, then settles into a long sustained applause. "That was Phil," said Salzberg over the din.

Then the chatter ran through the patrons milling about the crosswalks and walking paths. "Phil birdied again! Phil birdied again! Let's go catch him!" they buzzed excitedly, and off everyone scurried, lining the fairways seven to eight deep completely around the hole.

Suddenly, Tiger Woods is flyblown and disregarded in Phil's wake. Between his petulant grousing (the greens were "awful"), impudent scolding (the scandal is "none of our business") and pure weapons-grade bolonium, (he's "right there" and he "absolutely" likes his position), if Woods is where you get your news from, you'll never want for moonshine.

Meanwhile, Phil is getting a royal welcome everywhere and from everyone this week. More importantly, he has been handling himself with the greatest aplomb: all with the grace and class we expect from our greatest golf champions. He is greeting everyone, looking them in the eye with genuine interest. He's observing every social nicety behind the scenes as well, sincerely engaging every member of the staff, media, even the carhops and cart boys. He's dotting every "I" and crossing every "T" as the grand ambassador for golf.

In return, even though the tournament is only half over, many felt buoyant enough to start the celebration. "There's your winner right there," confided one fan as Phil sat relaxing on the veranda reading the paper. "I can feel it, it's gonna be his week. He's peaking at the right time."

"He shot himself right into contention and he woke the place up with a thunderclap," agreed Marlin Gustafsson, a fan from Arkansas. "Could you imagine a battle between him and Ernie on the back nine on Sunday? That would be epic." That would be astounding, a reprise of the great battle over the back nine at Augusta in 2004.

Still, there are a lot of contenders still bunched close enough to be a threat. Graeme McDowell, the Northern Irishman who has taken a mere 54 putts over two days and posted a solid 68 to match his opening 71, leads the tournament at 3-under. But he may be more well known for costing Shaun Micheel a penalty stroke.

Micheel, one of three first-round leaders, was in deep fescue greenside at the first hole. His pitch came out squirrelly, knuckle-balling to the turf. McDowell and two caddies thought Micheel double-hit it. Micheel adamantly denied it.

In a private interview with just two journalists, Micheel stated, "There was grass behind the ball. Of course the ball might come out funny. But I know I didn't double-hit it." Micheel was polite but firm, and never once gave the indication of being evasive or uncertain. He was measured, but certain.

"If that's a penalty, anyone who ever hit a ball fat gets a penalty, too. I'm going to scoring to review video now."

Sadly, 10 minutes later, Micheel may have been outvoted. Although Rocco Mediate agreed with Micheel - "I didn't see anything," he said - video replay, which seems inconclusive to many, at least shows the ball angling off strangely. With two caddies outnumbering his opinion, Micheel did the gentlemanly, sportsmanlike thing, and took a penalty stroke. No wonder the fans like him so much. His 77 left him at 4-over through 36 holes.

Other players played themselves into the fray however. Els fired a 68 right in front of Woods then aw-shucksed his way through an interview as big and easy as he did when he won at Oakmont 16 years ago.

"Some weeks I've come in and felt really calm because I'm playing well, and for some reason this year I'm feeling good again," the South African explained. Els, who cruised around Friday in 25 putts, is tied for second at 141, two behind McDowell and tied with Mickelson, Japanese whiz-kid Ryo Ishikawa, and back-to-back winner at the Pebble Beach tour stop, Dustin Johnson. Jerry Kelly, Zimbabwe's Brandon de Jonge, England's Paul Casey and Germany's Alex Cejka are three back at level-par 142. Ian Poulter, K.J. Choi, and Soren Kjeldsen are three back at 1-over 143.

Still, the day and the stage belonged to Mickelson. Many of you never got to see Arnold Palmer, but Mickelson makes a great comparison: a swashbuckling mercurial golfer who made you both live and die on championship Sundays. When you live vicariously through Mickelson, there's never a dull moment. In the flotsam and jetsam of Woods's Roland Emmerich distaster film of a life, Phil is the new face of golf, and one of the indisputable icons of this generation

He's also like Palmer in another way: he wears his wealth and success well. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about the difference between doing things in style . . . and doing things with style. People who do things in style make themselves look good. People who do things with style, make everyone around them look good. Unlike many wealthy, falsely-entitled pro athletes of the day, Phil not only understands the difference but he puts it in practice for all to see.

"He acts like an ordinary person and not an entitled jerk, like most professional athletes," said golf fan Julie Zimmerman. "He's seems genuinely grateful for all the adoration and blessings he gets from playing a game for a living, and he tries to set a good example for the fans so they can admire a clean-cut, forthright role model."

She's right: Phil wears his wealth well. When a little girl shouts, "Go Dill Pickleson!" from the gallery, he walks over and signs an autograph. He's how we like our athletes - respectful and grateful. He serves up a vivid image report of grace and class, even in the face of a tumultuous and agonizing time as his wife Amy and the mother of his three children battles cancer.

As such, where once Phil was merely the favorite of fervent golf fans, while the casual eyeballs flocked to Woods, now the casual fans are flocking to Phil as well, leaving Tiger to the chirping crickets and sycophants, every bit, "as spoiled, pampered, hidden, guarded, orchestrated, and entitled as he was before the scandal," as Texas philosopher Dan Jenkins put it.

The only people who like their athletes surly and self-aggrandizing are jock-sniffing P.R. dingbats and gossip columnists. Woods can keep them, along with the funky jazz he thinks he's selling to the fans through the media "interviews." Pull the string on the "Robot Tiger Talking Action Figure" and it says just 10 canned answers, such as "I didn't have my A game today," "None of your business," and "I will try to make my behavior more respectful of the game." You can buy one at www.TigerWoods.com for $149.95, batteries and Elin doll sold separately.

But as usually happens to Woods and Mickelson at majors, one plays well, while the other struggles. Despite Woods's prediction Friday that he didn't see anyone putting up a better number than McDowell's and Els's 68, Phil played Pebble like a symphony on the cool, overcast, breezy conditions. Indeed, the entire buzz at Pebble is Phil, though people still know that if the wind blows, Padraig Harrington can surge. Never forget his 66-66 finish at mighty Oakland Hills, and his gallant come-from-behind win at Carnasty . . . er . . . Carnoustie.

And so another bluebird day sang overhead in paradise. Blue skies smiled broadly, the wind took the day off, and short-sleeved, Bermuda-shorts-wearing fans sardined into the nooks and crannies of craggy Pebble Beach to see if their hero could put aside those five second places, and lay the talk about joining Sam Snead as the greatest never to win a U.S. Open to rest forever. To root for Phil is to root for all that is right and true and in the natural, altruistic character of golf. To watch him win at our beloved Pebble would be an indisputable masterpiece. Just make sure you have plenty of antacids and blood-thinners on hand, because he never makes it easy.

News, Notes & Quotes

* What the heck happened to our reigning PGA Champion? Y.E. Yang missed the cut at 14-over after a ghastly 49 on the back nine Friday consigned him to a dismal 83. His back nine card? 5-7-4-5-8-6-5-4-5=49. Break out the Band-Aids and bactine.

* Whoever heard of a par-5 that only 42% of the greatest players can't hit in regulation from 100 yards with a wedge in their hands? Pebble Beach's 14th is proving to be a nightmare; it's the second hardest hole on the course after the par-3 17th.

* Big names that are packed and gone after missing the cut? 2000 co-runner-up Miguel Angel Jimenez, Adam Scott, 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman, rising star Rory McIlroy, Hunter Mahan, Rory Sabbatini, 2005 U.S. Open scene-stealer Michael Campbell, and Rocco Mediate.

* Former Pebble Beach caddie Erick Justesen fired a second consecutive 74 to make the cut at 6-over. "I'm waking around with my head in the clouds," he gushed blithely.

* Low amateur Scott Langley stands at 2-over 144 after a scintillating 69 Friday. He started the third round five strokes out of the lead.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.