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BILL DWYRE

Phil Mickelson's old risks were fans' reward

Mickelson says the leaderboard shows that his more conservative approach works, but his old go-for-it style made him a fan favorite.

January 29, 2011|Bill Dwyre

From La Jolla — The aftermath of Saturday's round of golf at the Farmers Insurance Open brought thoughts of the little boy looking up at Shoeless Joe Jackson after the Black Sox scandal.

"Say it ain't so, Joe."

A world of golf fans has a similar refrain today.

"Say it ain't so, Phil."

The co-leader, along with Bill Haas, of the $5.8-million event on the Torrey Pines South Course along the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean, is Phil Mickelson. Mickelson shot four-under 68, Haas one-under 71 and they will march the fairways in the last group Sunday, starting at 12 under par, along with Hunter Mahan at 11 under.

This looked like a setup to a perfect finale for a tournament that has been blessed with ideal weather and great attractions. So what if Tiger Woods got sidetracked again over distracting involvements — sand traps and heavy rough? He shot 74, has 23 golfers ahead of him, 14 even with him and will be playing Sunday before most people finish breakfast.

Didn't matter. Phil was back.

The hometown boy, local hero, the fans' choice was striking it long and straight again. Last year had been a long struggle that included winning the Masters and little else. His world ranking slipped from No. 3 to No. 6 and his bank account was $1.5 million lighter than in 2009. Now, his score said the old Phil was back.

And then he met the media afterward and let all the air out of the balloon.

"The biggest thing today," he said, "is that I'm not taking on anywhere near as much risk."

It took a moment for the shock to settle in. This is a player who would rather bounce an approach shot off a TV truck and a sprinkler head than eat. Legend has it that he once won six figures on a bet on the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. Mickelson is an action guy. Tell him he can't hit that 150-yard pin on the driving range with his gap wedge and he'll be reaching into his pocket for a $100 bill.

He once lost a U.S. Open when his approach shot didn't make its way properly over a sponsor's tent. What was he supposed to do? Chip it back out on the fairway? Are you kidding?

Mickelson said he has learned, after many years of playing at Torrey Pines, that the course, which got a makeover for the 2008 U.S. Open, "is not a risk-and-reward course."

He said, "In fact, it penalizes you, because the penalty for coming up short is one or two shots, as opposed to the one shot you are trying to gain."

It was at this point a reporter asked him whether playing like this was like drinking castor oil.

"Yeah, eight pars and a birdie on the back nine," he said. "It's certainly not the way I want to play, but it's just the way you have to play this golf course."

So, apparently, he is setting aside the action junkie approach, sacrificing that rush of adrenaline as your five-wood clips the top of the tree, ricochets off the hamburger grill and the elderly gentleman's walking stick and makes it onto the green for a six-foot eagle putt.

Say it ain't so, Phil.

Asked whether he had been too stubborn over the years in his approach to Torrey Pines, he said he had.

"Sure, absolutely," he said, "because I love playing aggressive. I think people want to see birdies and they want to see bogeys. They want to see us attacking holes, trying to get it close."

Ah, yes.

"But this course just doesn't seem to reward you for taking any risk."

Lost in all this is that Mickelson has won here three times before, in 1993, 2000 and 2001. Presumably, he was flying sand traps and scoreboards then.

So now, a decade later, he becomes Barry Goldwater?

There is hope here. Perhaps he just can't help himself. Perhaps under the bright lights and big audience that he loves and loves him back, he will revert to what he knows and does best. See that five-foot hole 50 yards down the fairway under the tree branches and next to the storage shed? Plenty of room, Phil.

He even indicated Saturday that he has all the ideas and lexicon still right there in his head, waiting to be used.

"I think No. 15 is a great example today of what happens," he said. "I could have easily just hit a wedge into the middle of the green 55 feet and had the putt up the hill. Or I could sling-hook a nine-iron and get the ball to wrap around the bunker and get back to the pin."

Sling-hook a nine-iron? Now that's our Phil.

The other way is bland. Frighteningly, Mickelson has the ultimate answer to that.

"My more conservative approach into the greens, albeit boring, has led me to be on the top of the leaderboard," he said.

Next we will hear him quoting Vince Lombardi about winning not being everything, but the only thing.

Sunday will dawn bright and a bit cooler. The fans will swarm to Mickelson's threesome. TV sets will be turned on across the country. The stage will be set for great moments and memories.

And Mickelson will lay up.

Say it ain't so.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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