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Published: Monday, 8/20/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Mickelson's right touch just out of reach

DULUTH, Ga. - The book on the 83rd PGA Championship had to go to the final chapter, the final page, the final line. Any other script would have been disappointing.

Since last Monday, when the first golfer stepped to the 18th tee at Atlanta Athletic Club during a practice round, it was destined that the 490-yard par 4, the toughest hole on the course featuring the most terrifying second shot in many a major championship, should play a role in determining the champion.

A long hole, a strategic hole, a dogleg left over a glittering pond to a green where, yesterday, the pin was set just over the brick retaining wall.

David Toms came here yesterday as the shadows began to lengthen with a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson. He hit his drive two inches into the first cut of the right rough, not tremendously gnarly but still no emerald carpet. His ball came to rest on the side of a slight incline, 220 yards from the very front of the green.

Toms yanked the 5-wood from his bag, took a stance and backed off. This wasn't good. A 5-wood from that lie usually means a low hook with no spin. Sidehill, downhill - there was no way to hit a 5-wood and keep it from running through the green. The yardage was about right for a 3-iron, but not with all that water in front.

“The best I could do with the 5-wood would be to hit it over the green,” Toms said. “I felt laying up was my best chance to make 4. It was what I had to do.”

The thing about major championships, especially late on Sunday afternoons, is knowing when to take your foot off the gas pedal. Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

Some 40 minutes earlier, after Mickelson had chipped in at No. 15 for a birdie and a two-shot swing that pulled him into a tie with Toms, he left even his most ardent supporters shaking their heads over his club selection on the 16th tee.

“I felt like I had the momentum,” Mickelson said later. “It gave me the honor on the tee and I felt like if I put it in play I'd put some pressure on David.”

That being the case, what followed was more than a tad foolish. Staring down the chute at a tight, tree-lined hole with one of the narrowest landing areas in the yard, Mickelson wrapped his hands around his driver. Not a high-percentage fairway wood. His driver. And, yes, the lefty yanked it dead right into a tree.

The ball got a member's bounce back into the fairway, but Mickelson was left with a long shot that he had to hook around the foliage. He reached the green, but was well short and jacked a 40-foot uphill putt some eight feet past, missed coming back and took bogey.

One of the great criticisms of Mickelson, especially in majors, is that he pushes the envelope at the wrong times. This was a prime example.

On No. 18, when Toms handed the 5-wood back to his caddie and settled on a pitching wedge, he heard the reaction from the gallery. He heard somebody yell “wimp.” If he was listening closely, he might have heard a smattering of boos.

“I just had to put it out of my head,” Toms said. “I had to do what was right for me.”

Just as the late Payne Stewart did at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. He laid up on the 72nd hole, hit his sand wedge to 15 feet or so and made the dramatic par putt to win by one shot over, yes, Phil Mickelson.

Toms lofted his third shot, landed it left of the pin and saw it suck back to 10, maybe 12 feet from the pin.

He stood by as Mickelson's 25-foot, downhill birdie putt stopped rolling maybe four inches short of the jar, then took a deep breath and stood over his putt.

“It isn't supposed to be easy, you know,” Toms said. “You're supposed to have to make one of those to win. When you're a kid on the putting green, you dream of making that 12-footer to win a major.”

Toms did just that, meaning Mickelson's dreams are back on hold. His days are not exactly numbered at age 31, but he's 10 years into his career and he remains, all together now, the best player never to win a major championship.

“I certainly tried hard,” he said. “It's disappointing. It's going to make for a long off-season. I really felt this was the year that my game would break through and I would win a major. I really felt I could win this week.

“But it just seemed like every time I caught (Toms) today I'd come right back and make a mistake.”

Mickelson is the only one who can eliminate those mistakes. Maybe he'll get it right some day. Maybe he'll understand the it takes the same fortitude to throttle back in the turns as it does to put the pedal to the metal in the straightaways.

For his most recent lesson, he need look no further than David Toms, the 2001 PGA Champion, who turned a layup, so to speak, into a slam dunk.

Dave Hackenberg is a Blade sports writer.



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