About an hour after he'd quelled the tempest that can rage between his temples and birdied Nos. 16 and 17 and won, Phil Mickelson stood Sunday on a veranda at Riviera Country Club, grinning and signing serially for a throng that kept blurting its adoration.
As the golf freaks and beer nuts and other fanatics walked away sated and the crowd thinned out, a young man held up toward Mickelson a paper plate covered with an upside-down paper plate. Mickelson opened the contraption, and for a moment it seemed someone had brought him maybe a hot dog and some potato salad.
After Mickelson signed the cover plate and handed it back, though, the contents turned out to be his divot from No. 8 in the fourth round of the Northern Trust Open, which just went to show a fresh reality around Hogan's Alley.
This guy's such a king here nowadays that the people crave even his dirt.
"I love this golf course," Mickelson said, and indeed he must, right down to the tiniest kikuyu.
With his stormy closing 72 and his 15-under-par 269 total and his one-shot upending of fleeting front-runner Steve Stricker, Mickelson became the seventh golfer to successfully defend a title at Riviera. He hiked his PGA Tour victories to a dizzying 35. Heck, he even shooed some 2-year-old ghouls.
For a guy who once upon a time couldn't really play this place, Mickelson's reign here has become so totalitarian that had he only made par on the 72nd hole in 2007 instead of sighing into a playoff he would lose to Charles Howell III, he would have three straight titles instead of becoming merely the first player since Ben Hogan in 1946-48 to go runner-up, winner, winner.
"Well, I don't think I've emulated his style of how he played Riviera," Mickelson said. "He seemed to drive it into the fairway a little bit more and what have you."
Indeed, Mickelson has become such the mayor of Pacific Palisades that he can win even when playing partner Fred Couples could say with inarguable accuracy, "I mean, he didn't play well today."
He can win even when suffering a nine-shot swing from a seven-shot lead to a two-shot deficit versus a generally steady hand like Stricker. He can win even when the leaderboard pulsates all day with artists such as old Couples, young Andres Romero and the brilliant K.J. Choi, all of whom finished one behind Stricker and two behind Mickelson.
He can win here even when he starts a year resembling some hopeful mid-rankings straggler with a missed cut, a tie for 42nd and a tie for 55th.
Anymore, he can't even blow it even when he blows it.
Starting the day four shots up at 16 under par after his celestial 62 on Saturday, Mickelson eagled No. 1 for a whopping third straight day and looked all set to rid the place of middling suspense. Then his drives began spraying and his putts on the back nine began lipping out and turning around and mocking him from beside holes.
After five bogeys and nine pars among 14 holes, he'd fallen from his perch, joined such daylong nibblers as Couples and Rory Sabbatini and Choi at 13 under par, and waned two shots behind Stricker, who'd rocketed to 15 under. So Mickelson approached No. 16 with a new approach. He took all his recent tutelage from coach Butch Harmon and all his arcane concerns about his swing and just chucked them down the mental garbage disposal.
"I just blocked everything out, looked at the pin and swung to it," he said. "Didn't think about anything swing-wise, just looked at my target and swung and forgot about all the technical stuff that I had been working on.
"Tuesday morning, when I get together with Butch, we'll get back to the technical side. But it's difficult to play at a high level thinking about mechanics.
"So those last four holes just kind of looked at the target and swung."
Clearly it's such a simple game, so he struck his nine-iron on the par-three No. 16 some 152 yards to within four feet and made birdie to re-access 14 under par. At right about the time he hit his favorite drive of the tournament on No. 17, 323 yards down the fairway, Stricker finished bogeying No. 18, a hole he'd parred the other three days.
"A couple of poor swings," said Stricker, whose second shot strayed just enough rightward to cause peril and a trying chip, but then, even while 20th in the world and top 11 in the last two Northern Trusts and generally, wildly successful, Stricker doesn't own this place.
Mickelson does, and so his six-foot birdie putt for the lead on No. 17 had that emphatic look.
His three-wood drive on No. 18 stayed true and killed ghosts. And his six-foot putt to win never looked bound for anywhere but the drain.
And all that remained would be taking another trophy and playing Evita from the balcony to those who handed him hats and programs and dirt.
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Final scores at the Northern Trust Open. For complete scores, see PAGE 6
*--* Name 1 2 3 4 Total Phil Mickelson 63 72 62 72 -15 Steve Stricker 68 66 69 67 -14 K.J. Choi 66 69 67 69 -13 Fred Couples 67 70 65 69 -13 Andres Romero 66 70 65 70 -13 Luke Donald 66 69 69 68 -12 J.B. Holmes 73 67 64 68 -12 M. Calcavecchia 70 69 64 69 -12 Rory Sabbatini 68 67 67 70 -12 B. de Jonge 69 70 67 67 -11 Dustin Johnson 66 70 67 70 -11 Scott McCarron 64 68 70 71 -11 Angel Cabrera 72 68 68 66 -10 Rich Beem 68 69 69 68 -10 Tim Clark 68 72 66 68 -10 Chris DiMarco 68 72 66 68 -10 Bubba Watson 69 71 68 68 -8 Kenny Perry 70 68 69 69 -8 K. Sutherland 72 67 68 69 -8 Brian Davis 69 69 68 70 -8 Hunter Mahan 69 69 68 70 -8 Robert Allenby 70 67 68 71 -8 R.S. Johnson 70 68 67 71 -8 Dean Wilson 66 72 67 71 -8 *--*