Mickelson's short cut to glory

Andy Farrell assesses the talents of a young American tipped for a major role
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AS PART of its team profiles for last year's Ryder Cup, an American magazine included a section entitled "Defining moment" for each player. For Phil Mickelson, it read: "Opened 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock by splitting first fairway, then tossing driver disdainfully to caddie." Peter Alliss described it as the "most arrogant thing I've everseen".

The magazine also predicted that Mickelson's "in-your-face cockiness suggests Cup stardom is inevitable". Despite playing in only three of the five series of matches in the Ryder Cup, the 25-year-old left-hander was the only player on either side to remain unbeaten.

When the young American moved into the professional ranks, he was preceded by an impressive amateur record and an ear-to-ear, teeth-flashing smile. When he won his first US Tour title (while still at college) in 1991, he sat down later to analyse not his swing but his reaction to the crowd. Nauseatingly, he referred to Mr Nicklaus and Mr Palmer. When he turned pro at the 1992 US Open, a $500,000 deal was handed to him by Yonex.

The performance prompted one American journalist to write: "Mickelson is the kind of guy parents love and kids hate. There are some who think the Mr Perfect routine is a bit much."

The question became whether Mickelson was the "Bear Apparent", or just unbearable? Now he admits: "The more I've played, the more I've realised that the only thing that matters is what the clubs and the balls do, what scores are shot. That's what tells other people how good you are. So in the past, if I ever said things that made me sound arrogant, I didn't mean to, and I've tried to knock that off."

Mickelson got the "next Nicklaus" tag after becoming the first man since the great one to win the US Amateur and NCAA college title in the same year, 1990. Only Nicklaus has won as many as Mickelson's seven US Tour titles at a younger age. But three of Nicklaus's wins were major championships.

It is in this area that Mickelson has fallen behind his contemporary superstar-in-the-making, Ernie Els. The South African won the 1994 US Open and has been regularly in contention at the majors. He is No 4 in the world rankings to the American's 14th place. Mickelson's major record is sketchy. He has had four top 10 finishes: sixth and third at the 1993 and 1994 USPGAs, seventh in last year's Masters, and fourth at the 1995 US Open. But a look at his final-round scores tells another story. Not one of those four rounds was under 70 and they add up to a cumulative four over par, hardly figures that induce fear among his rivals.

Finding consistency in his game has been Mickelson's enduring problem as a professional. Almost all of this years $629,289, which puts him second behind Fred Couples on the US Money List, came on the West Coast swing - he won in Tucson for the third time and in Phoenix, where he went to university and now lives - while he has been virtually anonymous in the recent Florida segment.

But at Augusta he is to be feared on and around greens that terrify most of his rivals. The defending champion Ben Crenshaw, to whom Mickelson's game, and particularly his putting, has been compared, ranks him alongside last year's runner-up Davis Love as a potential winner. "Phil is going to be someone to deal with this year," said Crenshaw, renowned as one of the game's great putters. "To play Augusta you have to have a vivid imagination and this kid has got it. He plays with a lot of feel, and a lot of daring and judgement, but he has a touch that is out of this world. Unlike a lot of venues, Augusta puts a premium on the greens. The greens and the areas around the greens are its major defence."

Mickelson, whose short game was honed as a youngster on a chipping green his father built in the garden of their San Diego home, agreed: "It is important to be creative around the greens because they are so difficult and it does take a good short game to maintain your round. You are going to miss three or four greens a round and you need to get some of those up and down. I think my short game is pretty strong."

In his first round at Augusta, as an amateur, Mickelson outscored the defending champion Nick Faldo 69-72. In only his third outing last year (he was missing in 1994 after fracturing both legs in a skiing accident), he shot a 66 to take the joint first-round lead. One shot behind going into the final day, he had a double-bogey five at the sixth and gone were his chances of slipping into a Green Jacket, which remains an object of his constant desire.

"This event is not just important to me, but to everybody," Mickelson said. "It's special because it's played at the same site every year. History is made here every year, and I think everyone wants to be a part of that. It's also the first major of the year. Augusta is just a special place to play golf." His jacket size? 42 regular.