From the Golf Journal Archives - A Champion and an Entertainer

Aug 20, 2010

Phil Mickelson lived up to expectations as the two-time NCAA champion won the U.S. Amateur
while proving himself to be a consummate shotmaker.

By George Eberl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the October 1990 issue of Golf Journal.)

PERHAPS IT IS INEVITABLE that each year’s United States Amateur Championship produces a batch of new names, new faces, and new players. In times past, the amateur ranks were well stocked with players one could count on to see year after year. Now, however, with the young players coming out of the universities with their sights set on professional careers, the year-in, year-out amateur such as Jay Sigel is a disappearing breed.

The last four Amateur champions have been college players, and six of the last seven; since Sigel won successive Amateurs in 1982 and 1983, only Buddy Alexander broke the sequence by winning in 1986.

So it is that Bill Mayfair, of Arizona, won the Amateur in 1987; Eric Meeks came along to continue the collegiate streak in 1988; Chris Patton, of Clemson, last year; and now Phil Mickelson, of Arizona State. Mickelson defeated Manny Zerman in the final match, 5 and 4.

Mickelson is something special, quite apart from being the second left-handed player to win a USGA championship. (Ralph Howe won the 1988 Public Links Championship.) He has a certain panache that may have bordered on arrogance or, at the very least, intimidation from time to time in late August at the Cherry Hills Country Club, in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colo.

He is a marvelous entertainer as a player; as he remarked, “These people are good enough to come out to watch us play, and I think we owe it to them to be entertaining.” By that, he clearly meant to play well.

IN MANY RESPECTS, Mickelson is a throwback; he is a genuine shotmaker who improvises and comes up with inventive, often courageous productions that had spectators nudging each other in wonder.

A classic example of the intimidating character of his game occurred on the second day of match play when he was paired in the round of 32 against Jeff Thomas of South Plainfield, N.J. Thomas ran into a bit of trouble, finally reaching the first green in 3, while Mickelson placed his approach inside four feet. Thomas lay perhaps 25 to 30 feet away – a missable putt, indeed.

To the astonishment of onlookers, Mickelson conceded Thomas’s long putt for par, then calmly rolled in his short – but missable – putt for a birdie. Later, Mickelson explained that “I wanted to put some pressure on myself.” Walter Hagen would have been proud.

Subsequently, at lunch, a viewer shook his head; “Most of us do everything we can to reduce the pressure on ourselves; here’s a guy who wants to increase the pressure.”

Mickelson isn’t your garden-variety talent; he plans to finish his college career before he gives any thought to professional golf. Zerman, Mickelson’s friend over at the University of Arizona and a high school golf teammate previously in San Diego, also intends to complete his education before taking on a possible professional career.

In theory at least, this means Mickelson is looking at the possibility of four NCAA Championships – a prospect that wouldn’t necessarily startle young Phil’s growing legions of true believers. It would also put him in line for another Amateur or two if he is able to survive the rigors of this vigorous test.

THE UNITED STATES AMATEUR is a vigorous test. Approximately 5,000 amateurs from throughout the country qualify to compete in local and regional play, and show up among 312 players at the Denver sites of Cherry Hills and Meridian Country Clubs to trim their ranks to 64 match players. So, in two days, 312 dwindle to 64, and in another chaotic four days, 64 are reduced to a single elated survivor.

It is impossible, however, to ignore the thought that during any given decade, many thousands of fine players have pursued their individual dreams of a golf career, only to see those dreams die quietly. Some may then take the route of reinstated amateurism with mixed success. From time to time, their names and stories resurface, perhaps in the national Amateur, or as often as not in the Mid-Amateur Championships at the national and regional levels.

Yet, far more commonly, each successive year produces huge clusters of new names and faces, hopeful talents who will enjoy brief flirtations with notoriety over such historic venues as Cherry Hills, where three U.S. Opens have been played (1938, 1960, 1978, won in sequence by Ralph Guldahl, Arnold Palmer, and Andy North).

Indeed, this year’s Amateur may have turned out more than its share of memorabilia in terms of novel incidents, anecdotal odds and ends, the flotsam of major competitions.

Perhaps one of the larger early conversation pieces was the abrupt exodus from this year’s field of Chris Patton, the 1989 Amateur champion, done in by another Chris.

PATTON, who had performed well during his year as Amateur champion in appearances at the Masters and the U.S. Open, had announced his intentions to turn professional upon conclusion of the 1990 Amateur. Sadly, his departure from amateurism could not honestly be called memorable, save in a negative sense.

Patton, a large lad of 315 pounds from Fountain Inn, S.C., had played faultlessly during the qualifying 36 holes, with 143, or even par (71 at Cherry Hills, 72 at Meridian), five strokes better than Chris Zambri, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., Patton’s first-round opponent in match play.

The South Carolinian’s disappearance from the field was the most decisive match-play departure of a defending champion in the records of the Amateur; Patton lost to Zambri, 8 and 6. Patton himself observed, “I played almost as bad as I’ve ever seen an amateur play. Chris played well. He beat me on every hole (not quite accurate; they halved the par-3 sixth, and Patton won the par-3 eighth hole). I didn’t put any pressure on him. He had a free walk today. There’s nothing I can do or say; it wasn’t very pretty to watch. It’s bad to go out on such a sour note.”

The coup de grace, however, came on the final hole, the 12th, a 204-yard par 3. Patton was 7 down with seven holes to play – a must-win situation at every hole for him. So, what does Zambri do with his honors at the 12th? He aces the hole, leaving Patton in the situation of needing a covering hole-in-one to cut the loss to 7 and 6, rather than 8 and 6. Patton, just a trifle whimsically, dunked his tee shot indifferently into the pond fronting the green.

Zambri later described his day as the best he had ever had on the golf course, and confessed to constant nervousness. “I was in a good situation; I had nothing to lose. I was worried about shooting 85 and embarrassing myself.” He need not have been concerned unduly.

IN A WAY, some of the more bizarre twists and turns of this national championship may have been portended six weeks earlier, on July 11, when a hailstorm all but devastated Cherry Hills. It was enough to bring a scowl to the brow of the superstitious.

For example, as dominant a player as Mickelson may have seemed, three of his six matches were settled by one hole. He not only won the championship, but also was qualifying medalist, with 135, one stroke behind the record shared by Bob Clampett (1979) and Sam Randolph (1985), and Mickelson also shot a 64 at Meridian, the Amateur record for 18 holes of stroke play. He has since been named to the United States Team for the World Amateur Team Championship in late October, in Christchurch, New Zealand, along with Allen Doyle, David Duval, and David Eger. Mickelson, too, had his troubles; as often as not, it seemed he was saved by the par-5 11th and 17th holes, to say nothing of a few miracle shots that had his opponents mumbling to themselves.

His steadiness and his length off the tee – notably, of course, on the par-5 holes – kept his adversaries apprehensive. In his opening match, Mickelson drew veteran John Grace, one of four survivors out of 20 who shot 149, then played off for their places in the match-play draw. It took three holes to narrow the 20 down to four, and a fair length of time.

Rising to a novel Cherry Hills challenge – the Arnold Palmer tee at the first hole, from which Palmer drove the first green when he shot 65 in the final round to win the 1960 U.S. Open – the rangy, long-hitting Mickelson yanked his tee shot into a water hazard short and right of the first green, costing him a bogey 5 and sending Grace into an early lead. It was Mickelson’s only bogey, nicely offset by a trio of birdies. Grace extended his lead to 2 up with a birdie at the fourth hole, but he bogeyed the next hole, and Mickelson birdied both the seventh and ninth to take a 1-up lead at the bend.

Mickelson birdied the par-5 11th, reaching the 577-yard hole in two shots, but Grace equalized the birdie with one of his own at the par-3 12th. The two players halved the remaining six holes – including a miraculous Grace save from close to a tree at the par-3 15th.

IN THE SECOND ROUND, Mickelson climbed on Thomas, 6 and 5, after his first-hole gambit of conceding a 25-footer (Mickelson then won the second, third, and fourth holes to virtually sew up the outcome with 14 holes to play.) Mickelson was 5 up after nine holes, and once again he birdied the 577-yard 11th.

Mickelson was in for another tough test in the third round, when he was matched against Michael Swingle, of Seattle, Wash. Mickelson birdied the first hole, but Swingle took back that hole plus one more with successive pars at the fourth and fifth holes. Swingle was ahead, 1 up, after nine holes, lost his lead at the 10th, but recovered it at the 12th.

It was miracle time for Mickelson then. Caught in the woods off the 10th fairway, and trailing by a hole, Mickelson hooked an 8-iron around a tree blocking his direct line to the hole, his ball settling within 10 feet of the cup. When Phil sank his putt and the shocked Swingle missed his, the match was again even.

Next came the saving grace of the 555-yard par-5 17th, guarded on the front of the green by water that had caught Ben Hogan in the 1960 Open and denied him any chance of catching or defeating Palmer. Using his routine two shots for par 5s, Mickelson reached the green and two-putted for the birdie that moved him ahead of Swingle. Both parred the 18th, so Mickelson was bound for the quarterfinals.

Players and spectators alike, and, of course, the press and television, were all but conceding the championship to Mickelson, but it was increasingly apparent that nothing was coming easily for him. His quarterfinal match was no different as he ran into a very warm Bob May, of La Habra, Calif. May had defeated Bob Young, Jr., 2 up; Marc St. Martin, 4 and 2; and Bill Edwards, on the 23rd hole, to reach the quarterfinals.

If May was intimidated by the 6-foot-3 Mickelson, he kept his fear well concealed. May birdied the first, second, and fourth holes, and reached the turn with 33 strokes, two under par. Yet, he and Mickelson were in a deadlock (a fine example of why stroke scores are meaningless in match play). Mickelson birdied the fifth, seventh, and ninth holes, but offset them with three bogeys.

Once again, the par 5s came to Mickelson’s rescue as he birdied both the 11th and 17th, and that made the difference, the latter birdie negating May’s 2 at the par-3 15th.

Meanwhile, David Eger defeated Mike Brannan in the quarterfinals, 2 and 1, to earn his shot at Mickelson, while in the other brackets, Tom Scherrer defeated Hans Albertsson, 3 and 2, and Zerman advanced to the semifinals with a 3-and-2 victory over Michael Sposa.

Zerman’s progress was less heralded than that of his old San Diego school buddy. Zerman defeated Michael Etherington in the first round, 4 and 3, after qualifying with an even-par 143, Zerman then defeated John Sosa, 3 and 2; Craig Reed, 2 and 1; and Sposa.

Mickelson and Zerman would prove to be worthy finalists, both measured by skills and sentimen-tality. Indeed, Mickelson had wanted Zerman to join him at Arizona State, but Zerman, who came to the United States from South Africa as a teenager, had been offered a full scholarship by the University of Arizona.

When Mickelson defeated Eger, 5 and 3, and Zerman disposed of Scherrer, 4 and 2, the match-up was complete.

ZERMAN jumped off to an early lead in the final match by parring the first hole. Mickelson once again bogeyed this comparatively uncomplicated par 4. After that, despite occasional occurrences to suggest that a taut match was in the wind, Mickelson took over, wilting only briefly during the early stages of the afternoon round. Mickelson had gone to lunch 3 up over Zerman.

After Zerman’s promising beginning, Mickelson birdied the second, third, and fifth holes, his par at the fourth also a winner, so he quickly went from 1 down to 3 up. This lead would hold up to the luncheon break, even expanding to 4 up at the 10th and again at the 16th. Zerman had an even-par 71 through the first 18 holes, but it wasn’t good enough.

Zerman sent whispers through the growing gallery after lunch when he birdied the first hole and won the second with par, to pare Mickelson’s advantage to 1 up. They alternated winning holes from the third through the sixth, including a birdie at the par-5 fifth for Mickelson and a birdie 2 for Zerman from seven inches on the sixth.

They halved the next three holes, but the eighth, halved with birdies, was spectacular, as Zerman pitched in from 40 feet, and Mickelson rammed in a long putt to match Zerman’s 2. Zerman made the afternoon turn in 32, two strokes better than Mickelson, but Mickelson was up to his old tricks on the next five and final holes. His par at the 10th pushed him 2 up, and yet another birdie at the 11th nudged him to 3 up. They halved the 12th, but Mickelson birdied the 13th, and closed out Zerman with a par at the 14th.

It was over, and amateur golf looks forward to the bright prospect of having these two competitive entrants around for another year or two, perhaps to become household names if your household includes its share of golf enthusiasts.

Phil Mickelson, at 20, quickly caught the attention of growing galleries, and nothing diminished his favored role after he won medalist honors in qualifying play. (USGA Museum)

Phil Mickelson used a close-to-the-green pitch shot that startled observers because he took what appeared to be a full swing, yet was unerringly accurate. He invented the shot on a backyard course built by his father. (USGA Museum)

David Eger, the 1988 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and increasingly a fixture among the better American amateur players, reached the semifinals before falling to Mickelson, 5 and 3. (USGA Museum)