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Memo to Mickelson: Your Time is Now

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Phil Mickelson has a long history of betting on the underdog and winning. He took 28-1 odds before the start of the 2000 NFL season that the Ravens would win the Super Bowl.

He and some friends cashed in for nearly $500,000.

He bet with his heart in the 2001 World Series, laying his money on his former hometown Arizona Diamondbacks.

He and his betting buddies walked away with a cool $60,000.

Mickelson can't even resist an underdog on the golf course. At the NEC Invitational in August, "Lefty" bet fellow lefty Mike Weir $500 that Jim Furyk would hole his bunker shot to beat Tiger Woods in a seven-hole playoff.

Furyk made Mickelson look prophetic.

Mickelson will make his 2002 PGA Tour debut this week at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Indian Wells, California, after a skipping the entire late fall "silly season" and the first two official money events of 2002. As long as Tiger Woods is in his prime, it's safe to say that Mickelson, like so many of his sports bets, is an underdog to emerge as the Tour's best player this season.

Every year, for the past eight or nine years, the golfing world has pontificated about when and where Mickelson would finally break out as the game's benchmark. Each of those years, Mickelson would win a few tournaments out west, choke in a few back east, come up short in all four majors, but net enough top ten finishes to hold his annual reservation as one of the Tour's top money winners.

In 2001, the former Arizona State All-American won twice, posted 10 top three finishes, and choked away enough money to keep the collective golf media on his back like an 800-pound gorilla. Mickelson, at Thursday's media conference for the upcoming Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, called this a "good year."

For Mickelson fans, it was good to hear that he didn't consider it "great," because if that is all Lefty has in him, he might as well take his seat next to Stewart Cink, Vijay Singh and all the other golfers that try as they might, will never catch Tiger.

What's not so good for Mickelson fans is that the smooth putting San Diego native with the sheepish grin has already skipped the first two money events of the 2002 season - the Mercedes Championships and the Sony Open, eschewing hundreds of thousands in potential earnings for a family trip to Utah.

"I understand why people are surprised, because it's a chance to get a quick start on the money list ahead of the other players," Mickelson told reporters. "I'm confident I'll be able to make up the ground over the next few events."

Let's face it - Woods oozes with self-confidence, Mickelson merely sweats out self-doubt. Even with Woods' confidence, he didn't see fit to skip the season-opening Mercedes two weeks ago. Mickelson, like any of the other winners from the 2001 regular season, had a meal ticket to the tournament, he just opted not to cash it.

How can he be so confident that he'll make up the ground over the next "few events?"

Confident like he was when he stepped in the tee box on No. 18 on the third playoff hole at the 2001 Buick Invitational? Mickelson needed three drives to get a ball in play but inherited the trophy with double-bogey when Frank Lickliter three putted from six feet.

Woods will not need three putts from two yards at Augusta.

Confident like he was heading into Sunday at the Masters and PGA Championship in 2001, trailing by just a couple strokes, but coming up empty each time? Confident like he was when David Toms snuck up and nipped him on the final hole at the Compaq Classic in New Orleans?

Mickelson will go down as one of the most consistent golfers in the history of the game. He may choke away wins, but he rarely slams his trunk on Friday nights. He will also go down as one of the most talented players to ever pick up a golf club.

In so many ways, Mickelson has it right. He passed up millions of dollars by skipping last year's silly season to be with his new daughter, Sophia. He was ready to forego his first major championship and skip the final round of the U.S. Open in 1999 to be there for the birth of his first daughter, Amanda. In the age of the weekly NBA paternity suit, he is the consummate family man.

But unless he quiets the voices in his head on Sundays, and stops shunning chances for easy tune-ups for ski vacations, he'll remain what he is today: A extremely gifted, invariably exciting, remarkably consistent, very, very good professional golfer.

"I'm very excited about the year coming up and a lot of that is due to the fact that I've taken so much time off that I just can't wait to get back out and play golf again," Mickelson said. "When my excitement level is high, I practice harder, I work harder, mentally I'm fresher and more focused."

For the record, Mickelson bet on St. Louis to win the 2002 Super Bowl. He got 6-1 odds prior to the start of the season. The Rams aren't exactly underdogs, and Mickelson shouldn't be either.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


 
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