Masters title gives Mickelson major taste for victory making him the one to beat

Phil Mickelson shrugged off his bridesmaid tag and is now ready to make a major impact
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Among the comments Phil Mickelson made after yet another near-miss at a major championship, and there is quite an archive, was this: "The frustrating part is not that I am trying to win a major, I'm trying to win a bunch of them." The desire was always there, as was the talent of the man once known as "Flash Phil".

Among the comments Phil Mickelson made after yet another near-miss at a major championship, and there is quite an archive, was this: "The frustrating part is not that I am trying to win a major, I'm trying to win a bunch of them." The desire was always there, as was the talent of the man once known as "Flash Phil".

But the first 46 majors he played came and went without a win, this despite the 34-year-old Californian being the only active player other than Tiger Woods to have won more than 20 times on the US Tour.

He was close. Mickelson finished runner-up twice at the US Open and once at the USPGA, and four times he was third at the Masters. But something always got in the way, perhaps a case of not seeing the trees for the Woods.

At Augusta he kept hitting short putts through the break. Payne Stewart beat him on the final green at Pinehurst in 1999. And in the 2001 USPGA David Toms did what Mickelson would never contemplate and laid up with his second shot at the 72nd hole but still made par to win.

But his 43rd major resulted in a thrilling victory in this year's Masters against a rampaging Ernie Els. At last month's US Open at Shinnecock Hills, he finished second again, to Retief Goosen, but the disappointment was cushioned by going home to a Green Jacket.

Shinnecock reinforced the idea that Mickelson, rather than the beleaguered Tiger, is now the man to beat in world golf. The theory will be put to the test once more at Royal Troon where the 133rd Open Championship tees off on Thursday.

This is a new Mickelson, but one that might have arrived earlier had he not been so stubborn. While the rest of the golfing world thought he needed to tighten up when the examination paper is at its most severe, the American maintained he played his best when challenging himself to be aggressive and daring.

The road to Damascus moment came during 2003, when he did not win a title and lost every match at the President's Cup. But his year was overshadowed by the birth of his son, Evan. Due to complications both baby and mother spent four days in intensive care. The whole family took time to recover and such incidents put things like golf in perspective.

Writing off 2003, Mickelson started afresh on New Year's Day. A fitness regime was new, while he finally allowed Rick Smith, his coach, to do whatever remedial work he thought necessary on the swing. Shorter and smoother, Mickelson had an action that allowed him to hit more fairways and more greens, which, he found, could be fun, too.

"I still want to be aggressive," he said, "but from the middle of the fairway rather than the tee." Dave Pelz, a former Nasa scientist who is now a short-game expert, worked on the shots that Mickelson needed to develop to become more successful from 150 yards and in, rather than just showy.

Before both the Masters and the US Open, Mickelson, Smith and Pelz spent three days at the venue working on a strategy that could save him half-a-shot to a shot a round. "That's what you need to go from contention to being on top," Mickelson said.

The left-hander was at Troon last Wednesday. "It looked sensational," he said, "but I thought that about Shinnecock Hills the weeks before." It is unlikely Troon will end up out of control as happened at the US Open. "It looks like it is going to be a wonderful test of golf. A very fair, tough test.

"I prepared very hard for Shinnecock and felt I would have a good chance as the week started. The harder the course, the more my preparation seems to help. I feel very confident in how I am playing."

But while he had a history of getting close at the other majors, Mickelson's best result in an Open was 11th at St Andrews in 2000. But, again, he feels the work he has done on his game can only help put that right.

"In the past I did not feel comfortable with the types of shots you need here, meaning less spin, lower flight, letting the ball run up. I feel more comfortable now and I'm expecting to use many of the shots I have worked on throughout the year.

"But I also feel there is an element of luck needed to do well in a major championship, whether it's which side of the draw you are on for the first two days, hitting the flag-stick when you might have gone through the green, or having [Chris] DiMarco putting on the same line [on the final green] at Augusta. You can't control the breaks, but you can control the preparation and the style of shots you hit.

"What I love about the majors is the variety of golf required. At Augusta, we need power but also finesse around the greens. In a US Open you have to drive the ball well and hit accurate shots to the greens but the short game is not so important. At the British Open you have to control the trajectory, use a variety of shots around the green and putt well in the wind, which is extremely difficult. If you can win them all, what a complete player you have proven to be."

Mickelson may have unlocked the secret to completing the package. As for winning a "bunch of majors", he said: "I don't feel pressed for time. Hogan only started winning majors at the age of 34. I just want to give myself the best chance at each one."

A winning record

Mickelson Victories

1991 Northern Telecom Open

1993 Buick Invitational, The International

1994 Mercedes Championship

1995 Northern Telecom Open

1996 Nortel Open, Phoenix Open, Byron Nelson Classic, NEC World Series

1997 Bay Hill Invitational, Sprint International

1998 Mercedes Championship, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am

2000 Buick Invitational, BellSouth Classic, Colonial, Tour Championship

2001 Buick Invitational, Greater Hartford Open

2002 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Greater Hartford Open

2004 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, US Masters

Mickelson has been runner-up in 17 PGA events since 1992, including the US Open in 1999, 2002 and 2004.