Niagara Gazette

August 18, 2013

SINGER: Lefty: From Porter Cup to U.S. Open?

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The July 23-27 running of the 55th Porter Cup at NFCC showcased a longtime barometer-venue of future golf greatness, not least, in ‘72’s winner, Ben Crenshaw, and especially in the 1990 victory by a younger, shinier Phil Mickelson. Yes, like many former winners here, striding the lovely, roadside 18th green ringed by bunkers, Mickelson was destined for greater things, but also en route to unforeseen, gray hair-inducing difficulties he couldn’t have predicted.

For Lefty always had that personality trait which is such a two-edged sword in golf, as it is in life itself–sensitivity. I can still see him surrounded by closed-in, hungry crowds as he tried to hit out of hard-pan woods on the final hole of a U.S. Open he’d led by a bunch and seemed to have in the bag. And he didn’t get it done ...

Which made me think of Greg Norman, once anointed heir apparent to Jack Nicklaus (both blond and strong), and so often violated, it felt, by peremptory, elbow-tugging media vultures, pouncing at the sweaty Shark as he exited the course with a splendid third round score, and posing questions like: “How will you avoid blowing this major tomorrow like you did previous ones?”

Add to that all the gonzo-ish shouters (starting in the ‘90s) of “you’re the man!” or “in the hole!”, which for human racehorse types like Norman must have been especially jarring, and... well, you just felt for him. The Shark ended up winning two British Opens as his majors, in part because crowds over there were by and large, more respectful and probably smaller than at prestigious U.S. tourneys.

And then came Mickelson, taking the torch from Norman, as another favored target of media and crowds. (Some of the latter’s denizens more apt, it seemed, for rollicking at wrestling or dodgeball matches than watching pro golf!) Like Norman, the early Mickelson seemed another big money-winner who couldn’t get it done in majors–that was the kind of sadistic message you got from many who followed his career from the get-go.

Thankfully, he pried one major monkey off his back after another–winning three coveted Masters, one PGA, and finally, this summer of 2013, a British Open! Odd how it all came together at the latter–he’d first gotten over jet lag and warmed up in the U.K.’s cool north by winning the Scottish Open. And then at the British, Phil thankfully eluded the horrid, Norman-like position of leading after three rounds, going into the final day with expectations mounting vertiginously. Instead, poor Lee Westwood was peppered with the usual questions (another fine golfer awaiting a major), and then with crowd pressures on the final day.

Very conveniently, Mickelson at five shots back, and teeing off before the half-dozen or so ahead of him in the hunt, felt he could go for broke in the last round, and be somewhat the gambler, emerging from the weeds like Arnold or Stallone in an old action flick.

Which he did marvelously, and right to the end, even threading the needle by perilous traps at eighteen, curling his approach to about ten feet, and then draining one last putt for birdie–no half-way measures for him that fine day at Muirfield. All Mickelson did was fire a gaudy 66 to win by three, the only player in the field to break par in the 2013 Open.

He’d now won a fifth major and it was great to see. Am I making invidious comparisons here with Tiger? No way. Woods and Mickelson have been and remain the iconic American golfers of their era; but Tiger is definitely the tougher of the two, thanks in part to a strong father, who used to throw things at his kid while he was swinging to prepare him for the rigors of pro golf and what became massive, future stardom.

Sometimes there’s justice, right? Now if only Mickelson could quiet down that U.S. Open crowd, start from well behind in next year’s final round, and ...

Or does he have anything left to prove?

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.