Mickelson starting to hit his stride

Monday, February 12th 2007, 6:29 am
By: News On 6

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ So much for the demise of Phil Mickelson.

The last time he had the lead in the final round of a golf tournament, Mickelson sprayed the ball so badly off the tee that it finally caught up to him on the last hole of the U.S. Open. He clattered shots off trees and tents on his way to a dubious double bogey that cost him his third straight major.

Three tournaments into the 2007 season, Lefty didn't do much to stop speculation that he would never be the same.

Mickelson might agree after his five-shot victory in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

He might be even better.

With a command performance from tee-to-green, Mickelson went wire-to-wire on the Monterey Peninsula and closed with a 6-under 66, tying the 72-hole tournament scoring record and giving him great vibes about the rest of the year.

He used his debacle at Winged Foot to become a better driver, and he was all that and more at Pebble Beach. Mickelson missed only one fairway in the final round and only got in trouble when his 6-iron caught a gust and disappeared into the weeds, a lost ball that sent him to a double bogey on the fifth hole.

The rest of the final round was a breeze. He made three birdies during a four-hole stretch around the ocean to pull away from the pack, and for the second time in three years, was able to stroll up the 18th fairway in peaceful sunshine.

``I was excited to get back here,'' Mickelson said. ``I felt like I was finally starting to play well.''

Mickelson says things like that after all his victories, this one his third at Pebble and the 30th of his career. But ask him about his driver, and he can't contain his enthusiasm.

Whether he was trying to hit a draw or a fade, high or low, even a straight shot, the ball obeyed.

That was the lesson he took out of Winged Foot _ becoming better off the tee _ and while Pebble Beach is not a major, Mickelson felt as though it showed everyone he was ready for anything.

``I've never had this type of feeling on the tee box, knowing that it's going to be in the fairway and not worry about it,'' he said. ``Not seeing if it's going to go left or right or worried about that. I just feel so confident now.''

The rest of his game isn't bad, either.

His short-game coach joined him earlier in the week and they worked on his putting, which Mickelson felt had held him back in two mediocre starts and a missed cut this year. He didn't make them all, but he made enough. Mickelson finished at 20-under 268 to tie the record set by Mark O'Meara in 1997.

He earned $990,000 to become the third player in PGA Tour history to surpass $40 million for his career. He went up to No. 4 in the world rankings. And he won on the West Coast Swing for the 11th time in his 15 full seasons on the PGA Tour.

The important statistics, however, were accumulated over four days of sunshine and rain.

Mickelson tied for fourth in driving accuracy, hitting 82 percent of his fairways. He tied for first in greens in regulation, missing only 15 all week. He averaged only 28 putts per round, tied for fifth. And his average drive of 285.1 yards was tied for fourth.

It all starts off the tee.

``It's very easy for me to hit fairways. It feels that way,'' Mickelson said.

And that's when he's dangerous.

He played the final round with Kevin Sutherland, who has known Mickelson for years and is no stranger to his game. Sutherland fell out of contention with a double bogey on the ninth hole when a 9-iron flew the green into a hazard, and he held himself back by missing six putts inside 8 feet. But the more he watched Mickelson, he must have realized he was playing for second.

``To be honest with you, I was not all that disappointed with how I played,'' said Sutherland, who made birdie on the final hole for a 71 that put him in second place alone. ``I felt if I had putted a little better, I could have shot a 69 or 68. Phil shot a 66? I don't know if I had that in me today. He played tremendous golf.''

Sutherland expects more to follow.

Everyone has been hung up on Winged Foot, the sight of Mickelson combining bad breaks, bad shots and questionable thinking as he stumbled to that double bogey to make Geoff Ogilvy a surprising winner of the U.S. Open.

Mickelson didn't give it another shot until the majors were over.

Only during his three-month break did he reflect on what went wrong, and it didn't take him long to find the answer.

``I drove it horribly,'' Mickelson said. ``That's when I realized I needed to fix my driving.''

Winning at Pebble Beach doesn't make up for a missed opportunity at a U.S. Open, and Mickelson doesn't even think about redemption. In fact, he seemed to take more out how he won on Sunday than the fact he won.

``Winning today gives me a lot of satisfaction,'' he said. ``I believe I'm going to take what happened at Winged Foot and make it a plus for the rest of my career. I think I'm going to be a better driver of the ball for the rest of my career.''

Then he paused.

``At least, that's the goal.''

His target Sunday was to get his nose in front and stay there, and it didn't take long. He found the middle of the green on the par-5 second for a two-putt birdie, rolled in a 12-foot birdie on No. 4, then survived a fluke lost ball on the fifth. Mickelson thought it was short, and was stunned to arrive on the green to find marshal searching for a ball _ his ball, no less.

But the disappointed didn't last long.

He made birdie on four of his next six holes, including three in a four-hole stretch along the ocean to build a four-shot lead. The rest of the day was as easy as finding a fairway.