Mickelson still looking to escape 'best player never to ...' tag

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2001

DULUTH, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson is in exclusive company, just not the kind he prefers.

Doug Sanders.

MacDonald Smith.

Bill Melhorn.

Harry ''Lighthorse'' Cooper.

Of the 38 players who have won at least 19 events on the PGA Tour, Mickelson joins those four as the only ones who have never claimed a major championship.

Mickelson is only 31, just coming into his prime.

Already, the clock is ticking.

''It has taken a lot more time than I had anticipated, and I hope that it will eventually come. I believe that it will,'' Mickelson said. ''This week is a nice place to start.''

The PGA Championship is the last major of the season, the last chance Mickelson has to avoid the questions he faces every year that goes by without him shedding the burdensome label of ''Best to have never won a major.''

Tiger Woods will try to become the first player to win the same major three years in a row since Peter Thomson won the British Open from 1954-56. David Duval can become only the fourth player to win the final two majors of the year.

What Mickelson wouldn't trade for just one.

The spotlight is even brighter now. Duval graduated from that small class of players by winning the British Open with the kind of closing round in a major that Mickelson never has been able to produce.

''When he won, I didn't feel as though, 'Goodness, now I've got to come through,''' Mickelson said. ''I didn't really have an opinion on him winning and how it affected me.''

Mickelson will be among the favorites again, especially on an Atlanta Athletic Club course with the kind of length -- 7,213 yards for a par 70 -- that suits big hitters, and rain-softened greens that will allow him to attack the pins.

Then again, his aggressive style is what has cost him so many chances. Mickelson challenges just about every flag, as if the thought never crosses his mind that he might hit a bad shot. The result is missing the green on the short side, leading to bogey or worse.

Alas, what Mickelson lacks in majors, he makes up for in macho.

He says the majors should be the easiest for him to win because the penalty for a missed shot is more severe.

''It should make it more difficult for other players, and it should allow me the opportunity to excel or come out on top,'' Mickelson said. ''And it hasn't yet.''

Is he frustrated? Yes.

Does he think he is any poorer a player? Hardly.

He already considers himself one of the best players in the world, and his record certainly backs that up. Among active players, only Woods has more PGA Tour victories. Mickelson is No. 2 in the world ranking and he has twice beaten Woods down the stretch, at the Tour Championship and the Buick Invitational last year.

''If I were to win this week, I don't think anybody in the United States will look at me any differently than they have over the past 10 years,'' he said. ''The way I've played and the tournaments that I've done well in tend to show the style of player I am.

''A win in one tournament really isn't going to change that perception.''

Easy for him to say. He's never won a major.

Duval faced those questions, too, especially after missing two short birdie putts on the last two holes at the Masters, then falling out of contention at the U.S. Open. There also was that 6-iron he hit into Rae's Creek at the Masters last year, when Vijay Singh won.

Did he have the mettle to win a major?

Duval answered those questions at Royal Lytham. His name is etched in the silver claret jug, and no one can erase it. No one can wonder whether he can withstand the Sunday pressure at a major championship.

''Until you go do it, it doesn't answer the questions,'' Duval said. ''I think it does change how you are looked at. I think you get looked at as more of a champion, as opposed to just having won the other golf tournament.''

The U.S. Open at Southern Hills was the sixth time Mickelson has gone into the final round of a major within two strokes of the lead and failed to win.

Still, he can hardly be classified with Greg Norman, known for his Saturday Slam -- leading all four majors after three rounds in 1986 and winning only one -- and losing a six-stroke lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters.

Mickelson has never led after 54 holes at a major.

But with so much talent, introduced to the PGA Tour when he won as an amateur, so much more is expected from him.

Woods never went through a drought like this, winning his first major as a professional by 12 strokes in his record-setting performance at the Masters in 1997.

He is willing to cut Mickelson some slack.

''It's not easy to win a major championship,'' Woods said. ''There's only four a year. You have to play well, yes. But you need to have a little luck on your side. I knew David would win one. Phil will win one. It's a matter of time. He'll get a couple of lucky breaks, or he'll just flat outplay everybody.''

Fred Couples, Corey Pavin, Nick Price and Norman all were older than Mickelson when they won their first major.

''It would mean a lot to finally break through and win a major,'' Mickelson said, ''just to prove to myself that it can be done.''

Until then, that remains a question.

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