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Phil Mickelson enjoys a magical time at Riviera

Golfer pulls off many tricks on the way to winning the Northern Trust Open, except a vanishing act.

February 23, 2009|BILL DWYRE

You might read how Phil Mickelson won Riviera's Northern Trust Open on Sunday, but that would be inaccurate. The golf tournament was actually won by Harry Houdini, dressed in clothes that made him look like Mickelson.

Surrounded by the majesty that is Riviera -- a fabled clubhouse looking down from above and the surrounding hills alive with the sound of golf fans -- Mickelson-Houdini sank a six-foot putt on the 18th hole to win by a shot.

The putt was deemed to represent much drama by those who do not believe in the possibility of rabbits being pulled out of hats or scantily clad females being painlessly sawed in half.

For Phil, the Magic Man, it was no sweat.

He sank the putt as smoothly and effortlessly as a guy shedding padlocks and chains in a locked trunk 20 feet underwater.

Most mortals would have been unable to pull the putter back. The thought of it would have been filled with considerations of consequences. That would have been accompanied by sweaty palms, a dry throat and quivering knees.

The winning check, awaiting one flawless pendulum of a putter, was worth $1,134,400. Also at stake was the professional elixir of having won a second straight Los Angeles Open to join the likes of Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan.

These are moments that define athletes, create their legends. They are also moments that most of them face with as much dread as relish.

Mickelson lined up the putt, took a little practice swipe, stood over it for maybe five seconds and calmly rolled it in. Atlas shrugged, and so did Phil.

There will be much made about the nine-iron that Mickelson hit on the par-three 16th, about 150 yards, setting up the birdie he knew he had to have to catch leader Steve Stricker.

"That was a key shot for me . . . I knew I was two back," he said.

Yawn, swing, putt. One back.

Much will also be made about the tee shot he hit on the par-five 17th, some 323 yards with a driver that had been misbehaving so badly that it had been temporarily sent to its room in his golf bag. Mickelson called the one on No. 17 one of the two best drives he hit all week, the other coming on No. 15 on Sunday. It allowed him to hit the green in two and yawn in another six-footer for the birdie that put him back in the lead for good.

Much will also be made of the fact that he started the day four shots ahead, made that six when he eagled the first hole and then let all the other guys back in the game.

But think about it. Did Houdini do his tricks without an audience?

Very little will be made about what Mickelson did on the eighth hole, even though that represented as much of his life of levitation on the golf course as anything he did on Nos. 16, 17 or 18.

The eighth is a 433-yard par four, and when Mickelson's driver misbehaved well to the left, he had four massive eucalyptus trees blocking his path to the green, some 200 yards away.

In this situation, others chip out to the fairway, taking their medicine. Not Mickelson. He immediately started searching for something up his sleeve.

The anxious fans gathered around in a U shape, held back by marshals and ropes. Mickelson paced, pondered and stared at the trees already severely pockmarked from the thousands of mortals who had tried to do exactly what he was about to and failed.

Then he stepped up, sent an iron shot into a gap about four feet wide that ticked a leaf as it sailed by or it would have made it all the way to the green, rather than stopping 10 feet shy.

He chipped close, of course. Made the putt, of course.

Presto. Mickelson had made the trees disappear. Had he not, all the white gloves and wands on the last three holes wouldn't have mattered.

"I had a decent gap, and I missed that gap," Mickelson said. "As I was walking up to the ball, Bones [caddie Jim Mackay] said that was a good break, let's use that and get this up and down. And I was able to."

He had been able to do the near-impossible, which allowed him to do, what is for him, the very predictable: win a golf tournament in magical fashion.

There has been talk about this, ever since his attempt on the 18th hole of the 2006 U.S. Open to hit a shot through seven trees and over a cemetery with a moat. When that resulted in a double bogey and a humiliating loss, many assumed Mickelson would turn conservative.

David Copperfield would chuckle. As several thousand fans who watched him play Sunday would attest, Mickelson playing it straight is just an illusion.


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