Wedge cuts close for Phil Mickelson
SAN DIEGO -- You could hear a few jeers, a couple of catcalls, as Jim "Bones" Mackay stood on the 18th green tending the pin -- for Phil Mickelson, who was 72 yards away.
This was something the great showman Walter Hagen would do to psyche out opponents, a form of bravado that served him well during his 1920s heyday.
In 2011, such a move has the potential to come off poorly, although there was most definitely a method to the madness Sunday at Torrey Pines.
A few minutes later -- after Mickelson's approach landed behind the pin, spun back toward the cup but came up short of dropping for the eagle he needed to tie Bubba Watson and send the Farmers Insurance Open to a playoff -- Mackay said to suggest theatrics is to not understand the game.
"Pleeeeassse. I take offense at that word," Mickelson's longtime caddie said, smirking. "If you knew how many times in a year inside 100 yards he hits the flag, you'd understand that was a no-brainer.
"We'd be feeling pretty disgusted right now if it hit the flag and went back in the soup."
As it was, Lefty and Bones were feeling somewhere between happy and hollow after the runner-up finish to another lefty, the long-hitting Watson who uses a driver with a glowing, pink shaft.
The week was good in so many ways for Phil.
First and foremost, it was uplifting for so many in Mickelson's hometown to see his wife, Amy, out and about at a golf tournament for the first time since the 2009 Players Championship -- which was just before her breast cancer diagnosis.
Amy made it 18 holes each day except for Saturday, when some unusually warm weather kept her to nine holes. Still, 63 holes is pretty good. "I bet that's more than you guys did," she proudly quipped to a bunch of golf writers.
And it's hard to find fault with the golf. Although Mickelson missed too many fairways, he shot four rounds in the 60s, narrowly missed an eagle putt on the 13th Sunday that would have potentially altered the outcome, and forced Watson to hit a remarkable bunker shot on the 18th hole that he somehow got up and down for the winning birdie.
"I'm excited because I can tell that my game's coming around," Mickelson said. "I can tell that I'm starting to hit more shots, that I'm starting to see them a little bit easier. My putting feels great. My short game has been sharp, so I'm excited about the prospects for this year and the rest of the West Coast.
"I think it's important to try and get a W sometime here in the next few weeks, because I need a little bit of momentum heading into Augusta [for the Masters]. But this would have done it had I been able to close it out today."
That is where the disappointment plays out for Mickelson. When you have 38 PGA Tour victories, including four major championships, finishing second is not much of a consolation. It's nice to play well, certainly. But winning is the thing.
And winning has been in short supply of late for Mickelson, who moved back into the top five in the world with his finish. After winning the Masters last April, Mickelson could have moved to No. 1 in every tournament he played the rest of the year had he won.
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The fact he didn't left him open to some criticism, but then there is the matter of his wife's illness and his diagnosis with psoriatic arthritis, which began to affect him around the time of the U.S. Open -- where he agonizingly tied for fourth.
Mickelson never acknowledged it until the PGA Championship in August, and typically says all is well with the proper medication and diet. But there have been some rumblings that the arthritis was more problematic than he let on.
Certainly Mickelson doesn't want to make excuses. But if that is true, it would seem he has a pretty good one.
"I got diagnosed quickly before there was any permanent damage," Mickelson said. "Consequently, I've responded really well to treatment. I feel as though I'm able to go about my daily routine just as I always have. I've been able to manage my symptoms, which has allowed me to continue to work out, get my strength back.
"It's allowed me to do the things I normally do at home as well as practice hard and work on my game without having to cut any sessions short."
Mickelson clearly has some work to do with the driver. He hit just 22 of 56 fairways (39.3 percent) to rank tied for 64th out of the 79 players who made the cut.
Yet he still was second for the week in greens hit in regulation, which says something about his iron play.
And his short game appeared more than solid, which is likely why Mickelson felt he had a chance to hole that shot at the 18th.
"I felt like I had a chance," Mickelson said. "About 10, 12, 14 times a year I end up hitting the pin with a wedge, and it ricochets all over the place and I didn't want that to happen."
Watson wasn't about to get comfortable.
"I realize it's Phil Mickelson," Watson said. "He can make any shot he wants to. He's a great wedge player. I knew he had a shot at making it, so I didn't want to get too excited."
Farmers Insurance Open Leaderboard
1. Watson (-16)
2. Mickelson (-15)
T-3. Johnson (-13)
T-3. Vegas (-13)
5. Points (-12)
• Complete scores
Watson did that soon enough, tearing up after his second PGA Tour victory, one that was mighty impressive given the circumstances. Johnattan Vegas, coming off a victory last week, was right there. So were Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan.
And then, of course, there was Mickelson, who decided not to go for the green in two at the 18th because of a poor lie, laid up, then had his caddie tend the pin.
"It was the only thing to do, the thing we had to do," Mackay said.
It wasn't to be, and the 39th PGA Tour victory will have to wait. Perhaps it comes this week in Phoenix or next week at Pebble Beach or the week following at Riviera.
Before you know it, we'll be talking about Lefty being one of the favorites heading into the Masters.
"At the end of the day, he won't take any solace from playing well," Mackay said. "He wants to win tournaments. That's all he wants to do. He's always had that mindset.
"I've kidded him that when he's 60 years old and on the putting green Thursday morning at the Masters, he'll be thinking the same thing. That's just how he's built."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.