Peter Corrigan: Mickleson a winner of the thinking man's game

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Phil Mickelson slept in his green jacket last Sunday night. I realise that as a bedroom revelation this lacks a certain salacity in comparison with others doing the rounds recently but golfers, at least, will appreciate the depth of passion involved.

Mickelson's victory in the US Masters ranks as one of the classic climaxes even in the spectacular history of a tournament that invariably manages to sprinkle some springtime magic over us. And the precious green jacket awarded to the winner represents lasting proof of an ascent to a golfing pantheon; so wearing it to bed would not have been an outlandish reaction.

In the crowded sporting schedule we enjoyed over Easter there were other heroes, and none more so than Brian Lara, the West Indies captain, who became the first player in Test match history to score 400 runs in an innings. We have no idea if Lara slept with his bat. Had he done so, the St John's wicket in Antigua on which his achievement was so brilliantly created would have been as good a mattress as he was likely to find in the vicinity.

While it is difficult to compare feats in different sports, it was the second time Lara has broken that world record. What added the special gloss to Mickelson's triumph is that it was his first success in a major championship in 47 attempts.

His progress over the most treacherous back nine in golf, which included five birdies in the last seven holes, was a victory surge that served as its own lap of honour.

The greatness of such sporting moments, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and there were those left unmoved by the experience. Had there been anything remotely interesting on rival channels, we wouldn't have been blessed by so many casual viewers attracted by the noise and Augusta National's vivid colours.

Among those who turned up their noses, one columnist was particularly contemptuous of the game and its snobbish image. It is not a truth that many club golfers would recognise, but it is not difficult for an outsider to glimpse through certain clubhouse doors the last remnants of the British Raj mentality. But at all levels the game has a distinctive discipline and etiquette that not everyone would understand or appreciate.

That's fine. All who clout a ball around the countryside for pleasure are entitled to be examined with suspicion. But the mockery in this instance was accompanied by the dismissive conclusion that "golf is unusual among popular sports in that it requires absolutely no tactical skill".

At any time this would be an easily challenged assumption. But for the opinion to be uttered so soon after Mickelson's Masters was to render it ridiculous, because the one facet of his game that brought him success after 46 failures was the change in his tactical approach.

The story behind that gripping finale was that Mickelson, known as "Flash Phil" for his aggressive assaults on all the previous peaks, had suddenly wised up and adopted a more calculated route to his destination. Where he had boasted that he played aggressively because it was the only style he knew, he now took a more pragmatic attitude. He produced a shorter, more controlled, swing and sacrificed yards for accuracy. His irons were more precisely targeted to reach safer areas, and instead of rushing at the finishing stretch he remained calm and patient.

Yes, it was tactics wot won it. But, then, even the worst golfers have to devise a plan to get around the course in as few shots as possible. For a start, you have to chose the right club after deciding what you want to do with the ball; whether to play safe or go for a big hit, whether to fade or draw the ball, hit it high or low... Learning to hit it is only the beginning.

Now Mickelson is in possession of this new-found knowledge of his capabilities, he faces a summer of further discovery. When the winning putt spun around the back lip before dropping in, it not only signalled the end of his prolonged wait for major glory, it gave the golfing season a fresh impetus. We had four first-time winners in the majors last year, but not one of them has managed to build on his success. The uncoiling of Mickelson's spring has introduced a new force that has potential in abundance. This puts more than just the three remaining majors under threat. It adds extra power to the Americans' bid to reclaim the Ryder Cup in Detroit in September.

We seem to have spent a long time waiting for Tiger Woods to rediscover the dynamic that once threatened to condemn his rivals to a life as runners-up. After his barren run in the big events, Woods now requires a change in his tactical execution perhaps even more fundamental than Mickelson's. Woods cut a sorrowful figure at Augusta, and although he appears to be in urgent need of a guiding hand, he is determined to administer his own cure. Immediately after the Masters, Woods travelled to the US Special Forces training unit at Fort Bragg, hoping to give himself a military gee-up.

You can't resist being sympathetic towards a star who is stuck in Fort Bragg without anything to boast about.

An expensive new bar bill

Golf at the more mundane level, as played by normal folk, is about to become a lot more complicated when the Licensing Act 2003 comes into effect this summer.

Under the new act it will be illegal for a golf club to serve drinks, or anything else, to non-members who turn up for a casual game and pay a green fee.

Playing golf by way of a green fee goes well back into the long history of the game, and will no doubt continue. But being deprived of the opportunity to take some refreshment after the round would reduce the pleasure.

The answer would be to join a club, but in many areas, where membership of a club is either too expensive or requires a long spell on the waiting list, paying a green fee is the only option.

In addition to casual players, countless thousands play every day in societies or groups, and to them the after-match meal and prize presentation is an integral part of their outing For most clubs the presence of green-fee payers is a substantial part of their income, not only on the course but in the clubhouse, too. Children under 16 will also be barred from the premises during opening hours, which will cause problems for junior sections.

The act is intended to simplify all existing licenses for the sale of alcohol, but when applied to sports clubs it will hit golf hardest because of the number of non-members who pay to use the place on a daily basis.

Each club will have to apply for a "Club Premises Certificate" from the local authority, and the National Golf Clubs' Advisory Association have been spelling out the serious implications. Visitors can become temporary members for a day, but have to wait three days after their application. The whole process sounds very complicated, and clubs are going to have to seek some relief from the drastic effects the new law threatens to impose.

The only people likely to benefit are those green-fee payers who get a hole in one. How can they buy drinks all round if the bar can't serve them?

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