America rooting for Mickelson, the master of winning hearts and holes

Having learnt to play the galleries with as much flair as the fairways, 'Lefty' will not want for support at Augusta next week as he aims to add to last year's elusive first major, writes James Corrigan

There's a favourite story the cabbies have been telling in downtown Atlanta this past week ... Phil Mickelson walks into the two-bit Waffle House across the highway from the five-star hotel where he is staying for the BellSouth Classic.

A waitress comes up, takes the order for coffee, eggs and, yes, waffles, notices who she is serving and rushes to phone the district manager. The DM jumps in his car and screeches to his outlet as quickly as his six-valve will allow. "Mr Mickelson, as your biggest fan, that meal is on the house," he says to his famous customer. "Sir, I thank you for the hospitality," replies Mickelson. "But would you mind if you give that old lady on that table her waffles for free? She looks like she needs it more than I do."

Request granted, egg yoke mopped up, Mickelson leaves, selflessly signing autographs. The hard-pressed waitress gets round to clearing his table. There are two $100 notes placed under a napkin. "Gee, what a nice guy," so finishes the sermon. "Now could you ever imagine Tiger doing that?"

Well, yes, actually you could, although Woods is renowned for being on the three-wood side of cautious with his billions. But even if this fine ambassador left a $400 tip, and bought the whole damn state a full griddle of the tastiest hash browns, there isn't a southern cabbie worth his malt who would relay the tale with such unbridled glee. Because wherever the PGA Tour might take you, to Redstone home of the Houston Open, to Castle Pines proud host of The International, there will be similar "gee, what a nice guy" tales barked over shoulders, through Perspex grills. About "Lefty", that is. Always about "Lefty".

It would be easy to highlight the race card at this juncture, especially here in the deep south, although that would be simplistic in the extreme. And if simplistic proof to the contrary is either necessary or desirable, then the aforementioned taxi driver happened to be an Afro-Caribbean. "You English will think it's all about being black and about being white, just as it always seems to be the way down here," he said with a wink. "But really this is just about being Lefty and about being Tiger. Not much else."

Perhaps that helps to explain why when Tim Finchem, the revered PGA Tour commissioner, took the trouble himself to phone through the news on Monday that Mickelson would be travelling from the rain-delayed Players Championship to Sugarloaf Country Club, the organisers sounded like pussy cats stroked. "That's just wonderful," said Dave Kaplan, the executive director of the BellSouth Classic, an event that visibly wilts with each passing year in the ever-widening shadow cast by The Masters.

"You don't know what it means to the volunteers, to the people who have worked so hard to put on this tournament that we have a guy like that here, and I appreciate that he made that decision. If Phil hadn't have come? Well, imagine Christmas without Santa."

Or even Jesus for that matter, although to BellSouth, the US telecommunications giant, that would undoubtedly represent Tiger in the holy land that is the corporate jungle. But if Woods is the man of the sponsor then Mickelson is the man of the people. Woods might still have the mind of America, but Mickelson now owns its heart.

Inevitably, there are those who mutter that the 34-year-old Californian knows as much, has clinically procured as much even, and will point as evidence to a personal website that has an evangelic urging. "Phil has made it his mission to carry on the legacy set forth by the landmark players before him," it declares with a faithful fury that might make Billy Graham blush. "Times have changed and golf has become more popular. But to Phil, as with every true competitor and champion, winning is the ultimate measuring stick. But winning with class, humility, integrity and respect for one's place in history is what moves one from greatness to legendary."

Mickelson was always great, there was never any denying that ever since he became the last amateur to win on tour when still in college. But the folklore that told of that curious toddler picking up his first club as an 18-month-old, of that little right-hander learning to play left-handed by developing a mirror-image of his father's swing, of that four-year-old sobbing on the 18th at his local course, not out of tiredness but of a frustration that this was to be the day's last hole...all these could never be transferred to the realms of serious sporting legend until they were given the authenticity of that first, elusive major.

This, unforgettably, arrived at Augusta last year and again the cynics will claim that Mickelson's words last week as the Atlanta rains poured and his memories gushed out in the locker-room, were all part of the well-worked "blue-eyed boy, plan".

"The greatest feeling that I take home from last year's Masters win was after the tournament was over," he said, with that Father Dougal smile that so grabbed a nation's soul as he charged past Ernie Els to that seemingly unattainable destiny. "My wife, Amy, and I drove out of Magnolia Lane as Masters champion. That was the coolest feeling. For me to have won 22 tournaments and not have won a major was disappointing. And when I finally broke through it was really an ecstatic feeling. When I walk on the premises knowing that I'll be back there every year, it's very special to be a part of that history."

A glorious history, certainly. But the past points to a more complex reality. The darker side of Mickelson was given its first glint of light in 1991 when as the golden boy of the American Walker Cup side that swaggered upon Portmarnock, he was quoted in a Dublin newspaper as implying all Irish women were ugly. More personal whisperings have been discernible ever since; his fondness for the craps table, the circumstances that led to his baffling change of clubs - from Titleist to Calloway - in the run-up to last year's Ryder Cup, of jealous feuds with Tiger, of this, of that.

But America doesn't listen, doesn't want to hear it. They prefer to rejoice in waffles and in the moments after the US Open when vast crowds swarmed outside the scorer's hut after he bogeyed the last two holes to lose the chance of back-to-back majors to Retief Goosen. Then he held his arms aloft for quiet from the adoring masses and announced: "Ladies and gentleman, I have to go to do two press conferences now. But anyone who wants an autograph should gather by that wall and I'll be with you as soon as I can."

Good old Lefty, he knows how to lose, all right. But, critically in this success-ridden society, he also now knows how to win. The Masters gave him that, although the true moment of self-realisation occurred some time after the doomed 2003 season when he became known as the Michelin Man as problems in his private life went straight to his waist. They were forgivable ones, too. Amy, "my bride and constant companion", endured a tortuous birth, that almost claimed the lives of both mother and Evan, their third child. Mickelson was emotionally spent, but somehow Rick Smith, his coach, extracted a positive from such negativity. He beseeched his long-time student to re-evaluate his game, his life even, and see the merit in taking control of his talent, of the logic in being the cool-handed sniper instead of the hot-headed gunslinger.

Augusta 2004 witnessed a transformation, a Lefty with a gameplan, opting for percentage putts off the green instead of the gallery-inspired flop shots, of a quest for accuracy replacing the long-held insecurity for distance. Evidence can be seen perfectly in the 10 meticulous hours it took to play a practice round at Augusta on Tuesday. With his short-game guru, Dave Pelz, putting flags in different parts of the green and Mickelson being given fixed spots to aim for in every scenario, very little has been left to chance. Pragmatism has replaced spontaneity, probability has replaced possibility. More than anything, however, the achievement of Smith and Felz has been in convincing Mickelson that there are many ways to skin a Tiger.

Ah, Tiger, his nemesis, the rival that completes him. Although Vijay Singh's consistent beat and Els's incredible abundance of all things rhythmic has helped formed golf's so-called "Fab Four", in the States's notoriously insular consciousness there is really only Tiger and Phil, their very own John and Paul. And earlier last month, Doral saw the dream conflict of the two as Woods prevailed in a staggering stretch. While admitting he was shellshocked, the new Mickelson saw the future, while the old one would surely have berated the immediate past.

"He was playing at his best and that's what I wanted," Mickelson said. "But this [the defeat] was probably the best thing that could have happened to me heading into the majors because I felt like I was playing better than anybody and I just knew that I was going to win in that final round. And when I didn't? Well, it's a great slap in the face. But I'm going to go work my tail off to salvage a couple more shots because when I come back to The Masters, I'm going to be ready."

Tiger has been warned, America titillated. "I loved it, I mean, I really loved it," Mickelson said. "I hope he plays his best at Augusta. I want to go head-to-head with him again."

Mickelson and the golf fan, both. With equal bias.

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