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Can a Tiger change its stripes?
One waited for it on every tee. With every iron into the green, with every stoop over a long putt, one found oneself asking, is this it? Is this the moment when Philly blows it?

There was good reason to anticipate disaster for Mickelson has been making a meal of it for years. One had become attuned to Mickelson's special brand of madness and hesitant about having expectations of him winning a big one. Mickelson, for many, has long been assigned the 'wild boy of golf' and wild boys, although entertaining and loveable, are always unpredictable.

Indeed, even although seven days have elapsed, I still find it hard to believe that Flaky Phil is a Masters Champion. He has always had the game for it; he has always had all the shots in the bag and has nursed a putting touch that, on its day, is among the best ever. However, getting and keeping all of the individual components of his genius together for four days without doing something diabolically silly to devastate his score was something that many thought outwith his control.

There were early and on-going indicators of Phil's philandering ways. Few who witnessed his round with Faldo in the 1991 US Open will forget his attempt to play a driver out of the rough, and even fewer will forget the expression on Faldo's face when he attempted it. I was close to him when he played out of a distant fairway bunker on the fifth hole during the course of the Open on the Old Course. Clearly unable to reach the green and confronted with a steep bunker face, all that was required was a lob shot out into a perfect playing position. What he did was narrowly avoid being hit by the rebound off the bunker face. He made par, but his action was more that of an adolescent boy suffering from a surfeit of testosterone than a great champion focused on posting a score.

The lad was yet still young, but there have been little signs of maturity with marriage and fatherhood and even less of self-control. Even the most optimistic were despairing of him after the USPGA at Oak Hills last year when he turned losing into an art form.

In the first round at Oak Hills he was five under par with four holes to play and blew his advantage. He was again ahead in the second round when he blew it big-time. From a leading position, with his smile on full beam, one anticipated care and discretion with every shot for this was surely to be his first major win for every other likely contender seemed out of the frame. Phil managed to put the ball in the Oak Hills ponds twice in that round and charged more putts past the hole than most bulls make at a matador before meeting an equally gory end.

Then there was also Phil the philibuster. I treasure a tape I have of him in a post round press briefing when he broke off an account of his ability to focus and gave a lecture on the benefits of breast feeding babies. It appeared to me then that even if he was not to be a major champion he was certainly the best entertainment for the money on the Tour. He was pure show biz and his wife was the Posh to his Becks. Her posturing on the last green as Phil recorded yet another minor Tour triumph was something to see - as was her swimsuit pose with Phil on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as well as carefully set poses with him in numerous US golf magazines. This was mom's apple pie and good home cooking but although nutritious and certainly tasty, haute cuisine it was not. Was Phil focused on his game? It was a question often asked but the more pertinent question was, did he have the grey matter to focus?

What we saw over the back nine holes of the closing round at Augusta was an altogether mutated Mickelson. The cheesy grin was there as was the succession of exquisite shots but the madness never materialised. His focus and concentration was absolute.

The rationale goes that he over-wintered with his coaches learning to hit fairways, taking distance off his drives in pursuit of accuracy off the tee. He slogged away with his wedges to hone pinpoint distance judgement and returned to a putter that may well attain 'Calamity Jane' iconography. All of this was supposed to set him up for Augusta, but it still leaves unanswered questions. Questions like what happened between his ears to enable him to keep it all together?

The answer to this is not clear and the jury is still out on his steadfastness. Can he do it again? Does Philly have another Major in him or is he merely a one Masters wonder?

Having relinquished the undisputed world title of 'the greatest player never to have won a major' to Colin Montgomerie, who is not likely to give it up, can we now look ahead to Phil carrying the US Open at Shinnecock? This is like asking the question, can the leopard change its spots?' More appositely, can the Tiger change its stripes? In strictly biological terms the answer is an emphatic, no! In psychological terms, well, who knows?

Tiger Woods would appear to have lost his winning ways for the time being and Ernie Els seems to be elsewhere most of the time. The field is certainly open for Shinnecock and, if this run of first time winners of the Majors continues, surely Howell, Scott and Casey are in the frame and waiting in line. The flamboyant Phil may do a double but I somehow doubt it.

©    19 - APRIL 2004



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