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THE BRITISH OPEN/ THURSDAY-SUNDAY, MUIRFIELD COURSE,
SCOTLAND

An Open Mind

Mickelson is always thinking, on and off course, but he hasn't figured out how to win a major championship

July 15, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The watch is always there, on his wrist, because even on the golf course, in the midst of a tournament, Phil Mickelson likes to keep track of the time.

The leaderboard doesn't provide quite enough information. He monitors action on adjacent fairways. He asks marshals and television cameramen for reports on players who came through earlier.

His mind--always spinning, churning--kicks into high gear when he finds himself in a tight spot, in the rough or the trees. Angles must be calculated, obstacles accounted for, wind and terrain factored into the equation. The game becomes interesting.

No thoughts of laying up. No chipping out to save par.

"I love being creative and trying to make birdies from behind trees," he says. "When I go play, that's what makes it fun."

Golf the Mickelson way has produced enough thrills and surprises for 21 career victories on the PGA Tour, earning its practitioner millions a year in purses and endorsements, ranking him second behind Tiger Woods. It has won him a legion of fans.

It also has produced inglorious catastrophe, a feast-or-famine routine in which bogey follows birdie, par being the exception. Critics have various theories on this dynamic. Some call him a choker, others say he is reckless. A few have ventured into the pathological, suggesting a gambler's compulsion.

Their assertions are fueled by a simple fact: For all his success, Mickelson is the best player never to have won a major. He is 0 for 40 in golf's biggest events. He knows the whispers will resume, as persistent as ever, when he tees off in the British Open at Muirfield on Thursday.

The critics want him to change. He says they don't understand how his mind works.

*

On a sweltering July day--the hottest in northern Michigan in decades--Mickelson has come to the town of Gaylord for the Par-3 Shootout, a made-for-television skins game, a working vacation on the way to Scotland. The 32-year-old finds a place in the shade, a low wall beyond the clubhouse, to talk.

Words pour out, not especially fast but with great quantity and sincerity, sometimes curving like a soft fade from one topic to the next. Asked about life away from the game, he mentions a fly fishing trip. Skiing with his wife. His pilot's license. "I do like aerobatics," he says.

Aerobatics? Loops and rolls? Before the question can be uttered, Mickelson launches into another subject: quantum gravity, which unites quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of relativity.

"It's basically a discussion of how the space-time continuum is affected by gravity and how, theoretically, it's possible even though improbable to skip into different elements of time, whether it's going through a black hole ... "

He pauses a moment.

"That's improbable because of how strong the gravitational pull is. If the Earth was to be engulfed by a black hole, it would come out three-quarters of an inch around.... "

His hands cup to approximate the size of a compressed planet.

"It's more probable to go forward in time given that light is bent by gravity," he continues. "If we can travel faster than the speed of light we might be able to intersect different intervals of time."

The conversation leaps to ion propulsion and the escape velocity of the moon, which leads to a discussion of overpopulation and the prospect of colonizing other planets.

"I'm thinking big picture," he says. "Way past my lifetime."

Two thousand miles away, in Arizona, Steve Loy chuckles. In the late 1980s, Loy coached Mickelson at Arizona State, where the left-hander won three NCAA championships, joining Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to capture the college and U.S. Amateur titles in the same year. Just as impressive to his coach, he earned enough credits to graduate with a psychology degree.

"In four years," Loy says. "Not a single summer class."

Loy knew what to expect when Mickelson turned professional in 1992 and asked him to come aboard as his agent. Meetings to discuss travel plans, scheduling and business interests have always been conducted in a certain fashion.

"When I put business in front of him, it has to be very specific and very precise or his mind will already be going on to something else before I can complete the mission," Loy says. "Phil always has a lot of things going on internally. He's always thinking."

In sports, thinking is eyed with suspicion. When does it become a distraction?

Much of Mickelson's attention is devoted to family. He recently took an extended break from the tour for the birth of his second daughter, Sophia. Lee Trevino, who played the televised event in Michigan, sees this as significant.

"Maybe golf is not 100% with Phil," he says. "With Tiger Woods, it's 100%. It's like a boxing match where one guy trains a little harder and wears the other guy down."

There is also Mickelson's alleged proclivity for gambling.

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