ONCE again, another player denies Phil Mickelson a long-awaited golfing title

Monday, August 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DULUTH, Ga. (AP) _ Phil Mickelson never thought it would take this long.

Not when he won for the first time on the PGA Tour while still an amateur golfer. Has it really been a decade since that landmark victory?

Not when he kept going to the final round so close to victory. How many times has it been now, seven?

There he was again Sunday, head bowed as another golfer's ball dropped into the cup, ensuring that Mickelson's agony will go on for at least another eight months.

``I'm trying to win a bunch of majors,'' he said. ``What makes it so frustrating is I can't even win one.''

Mickelson was denied this time by David Toms, who rolled in a 12-footer for par on the final hole of the PGA Championship, leaving the left-hander to wonder if he'll ever know the feeling.

``I know the off-season is going to be long, because I really felt this was the year where my game was going to break through,'' Mickelson said. ``I felt like this was certainly the year where I was going to win a major.''

The next chance doesn't come until April at Augusta National, where he'll be surrounded by a generation that left him behind. Ernie Els, David Duval, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods already have their majors _ in Tiger's case, six of them.

Greg Norman, for all his torment, won a couple of British Opens. John Daly has managed just four tour victories in his troubled life, yet two of them are majors. Now, even Toms can say he beat Mickelson to the promised land.

How can this be? How can a guy with 19 career victories and Tigerlike talent still be barred from a not-so-exclusive club?

``I feel bad for Phil,'' Toms said. ``I think it's a matter of time before he wins his. It seems like he's in contention every week, whether it's a regular tour event or a major. I wish it could have worked out better for him, but for me it's the highlight of my career.''

For Mickelson, it's sheer torture. On another sweltering day at Atlanta Athletic Club, he had to endure a virtual replay of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where the late Payne Stewart laid up on the final hole, then sank a 15-foot par putt to win by a stroke.

Toms made a similar decision, knowing it could have haunt him the rest of his career. He stopped short of the water on the 490-yard closing hole, knocked a lob wedge over the lake to 12 feet and calmly sank the par putt after Mickelson's birdie attempt stopped an agonizing 2 inches short of the cup.

``The first thing that went through my mind was '99 at Pinehurst,'' Mickelson said. ``I had that same feeling David's putt was going to go in. Without a doubt.''

He was right. Toms finished with a 15-under-par 265, two strokes better than the 72-hole scoring record in majors first set by Greg Norman at the 1993 British Open and matched by Steve Elkington and playoff loser Colin Montgomerie at the '95 PGA.

Mickelson also eclipsed the former mark with a 266, only to pick the worst possible time to play the best golf of his life. No one can question his heart. He played with courage and skill and made only one mistake on the back nine _ a three-putt bogey from 50 feet on No. 16.

It cost him, despite four straight rounds in the 60s that included a 68 on the final day.

``I played well today, but I didn't play well enough,'' said Mickelson, now 0-for-34 in majors despite going to the final round within two strokes of the lead seven times. ``I don't know what else to say.''