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IN HIS FATHER’S IMAGE : Mickelson Learned Golf Backwards, but Career Is on Fast Forward

One of the ironies of parenting is that the smallest action or quietest remark can have a profound effect on a child.

So it was probably with little thought--other than keeping an eye on a baby--that Phillip Mickelson would sit little Phil facing him while he practiced his golf swing.

Little did Phillip and Mary Mickelson realize what they were starting.

Phillip, a pilot at the time, enjoyed golf. And Phil, at 18 months, enjoyed nothing better than watching his dad swing a club. Except maybe swinging one himself.

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“When he was not quite 2, he used to come down the stairs, arms full of balls, and a club,” Mary said. “He had so many balls in his arms that they would go bouncing down the stairs. We all laughed and thought it was cute. But we figured he’d eventually get bored with it.”

Sixteen years later, Mickelson still hasn’t gotten bored.

Mickelson was twice Golf magazine’s junior golfer of the year. While at the University of San Diego High School, he qualified for the Shearson Lehman Hutton San Diego Open and the Los Angeles Open. Mickelson continued his success as a freshman at Arizona State this season by becoming the youngest to win the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship. And the first left-hander to win the title.

Left-handed golfers are rare, especially successful ones. Bob Charles of New Zealand is the most prominent. He won the 1963 British Open and was the leading money winner on the Senior PGA Tour last year. Russ Cochran is the only left-hander listed in the PGA Tour book.

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But the difference between other left-handed golfers and Mickelson is that the other golfers are left-handed.

Mickelson plays golf left-handed. But he is not left-handed.

While sitting and watching his right-handed father, little Phil learned to swing a golf club in a mirror image. And that’s how he swings one now.

“We didn’t realize it at the time, and when we did, we tried to teach him to swing right-handed but it was too late,” Mary said. “He had such a natural swing, even at that age.”

Mickelson, of course, doesn’t remember any of this, except that golf has always been a part of his life. Sometimes the game was most of his life.

Nobody knows the thoughts a 4-year-old packs in his suitcase when he decides to run away from home. But in Mickelson’s case, it was not hard to guess.

“A neighbor called, and she saw Phil walking down the street, and she asked him where he was going,” Mary said. “She told me he said, ‘I want to play golf on a big course’ . . . and that you wouldn’t take him.’

“The whole neighborhood was watching this little boy, holding his Snoopy by the ear in one hand and his suitcase and golf club in the other, walking down the street.”

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Although his first attempt to play on a big course was thwarted, Mickelson was soon spending a big part of his childhood on them.

During the summer, Mary and Phillip would take him to the par-54 Presidio Golf Course and pay the all-day rate. Then they’d go back to pick him up in the evening.

“He’d be there all day long, and when we’d go to pick him up, he’d run out to the car and say, ‘Just one more round, just one more round,’ ” Mary said.

When he was 9, Mickelson got a job picking up range balls in exchange for getting time on the driving range and course. By 11, he would drive carts and pick up the flags at night. But the course he worked at was sold, and the new owners had a rule that you had to be 16 to work. So Phillip and Mary joined a club.

Mickelson, it seemed, never tired of playing golf.

When he wasn’t on the course, he was playing on a tee and green the Mickelsons had built in the backyard. And this is not a large yard. Fortunately, it overlooks a canyon where many errant balls have landed.

“Back then it was all dirt,” Mary said. “When we put in a green and chipping tee, those were the only two areas in the yard that were green. I really think it helped his short game.”

What is surprising is that Mickelson has played so intensely for so long and not burned out.

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“Sometimes I get to the course, and I don’t feel like getting out of the car,” Mickelson said. “Then I just turn around and go back home. That’s why a lot of younger kids get burned out. Because their parents tell them, ‘You have to practice.’ Then it becomes work, and it’s not fun anymore.”

And it’s still fun for Mickelson. He is still winning.

“I knew I was ready to move up after three years of being a top junior,” Mickelson said. “I was a little leery--a little scared. You’re new (in college), and you are now surrounded by 15 top golfers competing for five spots.”

Mickelson’s parents tried to prepare him for college golf, especially after all the success he had as a junior player.

“We thought this would be a humbling year for him,” Mary said. “We told him to remember that this is a different plateau and that he will have to start over and work his way up. He’d say, ‘Yep, Mom, right, Mom, anything you say, Mom.’ ”

The Mickelsons needn’t have worried. Phil soon became Arizona State’s top golfer and led the team with a 72.14 stroke average. Ten times he finished among the top 10 in 14 tournaments, including three victories.

His victory in the NCAA championships was only the fourth by a freshman and put Mickelson in excellent company. Others to win it in their first year were Ben Crenshaw (Texas, 1971), who has 14 PGA Tour victories; Curtis Strange (Wake Forest, 1974), the top money winner on the PGA Tour three of the past four years and Billy Ray Brown (Houston, 1982), a current Tour player.

Perhaps it is good that Mickelson is majoring in psychology at ASU. It could come in handy, according to Brown.

Asked about winning the title as a freshman, Brown said: “Yuck.”

“Ben and I talk about that a lot,” Brown said. “It was like, what do you do for an encore? That was tough for me to deal with. Everybody expects you to win everything. He’ll get mature a whole lot faster than he wants to.

“I’d like to tell him to take it with a grain of salt. It’s going to get rough for him.”

The title is only a month old and Mickelson said he hasn’t felt any ill effects.

“It’s all building towards a goal,” Mickelson said. “It’s a step on a ladder. It’s time to reset some goals and move them a little higher for next year. That’s all it is right now.”

Mickelson might get a little taste this summer of what it’s like after a successful college season. He has a full slate of tournaments this summer.

He reached the quarterfinals of the California State Amateur in late June, and he will try to qualify for the U.S. Amateur. Mickelson also will play in the Colorado Open, Porter Cup and Western Amateur.

What about a break?

“There’ll be those two weeks in July,” Mickelson said. “You can get into all the philosophies of the game, but I just enjoy it.”


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