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REARDON: The Guy on the Other Side of the Ball

Dan Reardon
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Phil Mickelson of the USA hits his 2nd shot on the 13th hole during the second round of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links on July 13, 2012 in Inverness, Scotland.  (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Phil Mickelson of the USA hits his 2nd shot on the 13th hole during the second round of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links on July 13, 2012 in Inverness, Scotland. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

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With Phil Mickelson hanging around the lead for the tournament days at the Wells Fargo Championship it seemed like an appropriate time to take a snapshot of where he has been, where is now and what the future might hold.

There are enough adjectives to use in describing the game’s greatest left-handed golfer to fill up a few pages in a Thesaurus. Most would paint him in favorable light. Some would go to his flaws and foibles. One that would never be used is dull. Mickelson through two decades as a professional has always been an interesting player and personality in the game.

His current numbers clearly made his early induction into golf’s Hall of Fame justified. With 41 career wins he is comfortably in the top ten but unlikely to catch Arnold Palmer (62) to crack the top five. Only twice in the last twenty years has he gone a calendar year without a win.

His four major wins ranks him in the top twenty all time, but at age 42 he would need three more titles after 40 to crack the top ten. If there is a numbers argument to be made against him it is in his ability to contend for major titles but not deliver at the end. A total of 28 times Mickelson has finished in the top ten in majors including seven runner-up finishes. Five times he has finished second in the US Open, the most by any non-winner in history.

Those are the numbers but there is so much more to Mickelson to consider. The record book will show that in 2002 Tiger Woods won the US Open at Bethpage but insiders will point to that week as the time when Mickelson became the “Peoples Champion.” At the peak of Woods ascendance as the games best player, Mickelson charmed the New York galleries and became the more popular player.

His 72nd hole birdie at the Masters in 2004 gave him his first major win at age 33, but his three stroke win in 2010 will be the one remembered for the embrace with his ailing wife Amy greenside at Augusta.

In a way Mickelson is a player trapped in amber with his career DNA mostly mapped with little chance of a major alteration. He would dearly love to join the elite group with a career slam, but the challenge of collecting each of the Open’s is not impossible but statistically unlikely. His last major win was three years ago and his last four major appearances have been outside the top thirty.

Looking for that edge to move him up the ladder, Mickelson has become the gimmick golfer, turning to technology and innovation to offset what age and health may be subtracting from him. His second Masters was the two driver Masters. He tried to win a US Open at Torrey Pines with not even one driver in the bag at the start. He almost always has more wedges that woods in his bag.

A year ago, when his putting had become woeful, he ran a short streak with the belly putter in the bag and after abandoning that band aid he did the unheard of act of changing his putting grip to a “claw” with a telephone lesson his only preparation. Today that grip has mutated but remains unconventional.

For this year’s Masters he unveiled what has become known as the Franken-club off the tee. The smaller driver head is a throw back to an earlier era, resembling today’s three wood but enhanced with an 8.5-degree loft and a very high tech shaft. The man who loves the new when it comes to equipment has essentially put an old fashioned two wood (spoon) back in his bag.

For the future the adjective that may best describe Mickelson is still dangerous. His length is very competitive and at the same time potentially destructive. His affinity for taking chances on the coarse has never changed. The man who made the flop shot his trademark around the greens has added wisdom to his recovery repertoire working with Dave Pelz.

But if dangerous describes his remaining years on Tour, uncertainty must also be considered. Two years ago Mickelson was diagnosed and sidelined with a debilitating form of arthritis. He turned his infirmity into an endorsement and can be seen regularly advocating for a remedy. What those TV pitches don’t reveal is how much his problem is limiting his success. Harmon suggested Master’s week that there have rounds in recent times when Mickelson has been judged harshly for his poor play when in fact playing at all represented a triumph of spirit.

Perhaps one more adjective should be considered when taking that snapshot of Mickelson – resilient. Whenever the San Diego native has slipped enough to make you think he has little left in the tank, he has surprised with a win like his tour de force at Phoenix. His days may be numbered but that number remains unclear.

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