A miniature success amid Phil Mickelson’s woeful play at La Jolla

Reporting from La Jolla -- It is taking some real searching to find the silver lining in Phil Mickelson’s currently cloudy golf game these days.

He recovered a bit Friday from the face-plant 77 he shot here Thursday in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open. But his four-under-par 68 wasn’t nearly good enough to make the cut. Three shots shy, as a matter of fact.

Mickelson’s own characterizations summed it up best.

He called his 77 “pathetic,” his 68 merely “disappointing.” Progress, clearly.


Still, at a celebrated Torrey Pines Golf Course, where he has won three times and finished in the top five eight times, the general feeling was the same as his description of the 68. The disappointment certainly had to be especially acute for those who sell tickets for this event and those who had purchased them for the weekend.

Mickelson could shoot 85 over his next five tournament rounds and still retain his star quality. Some guys have it, some don’t. Almost from the start of his pro career as a 22-year-old prodigy out of Arizona State in 1992, he had that magic smile and short game to match, and when he played, they came.

But a share of 49th at last week’s Humana event in the desert, followed by this benign tour of a course he has always sliced up like a surgeon, has brought a few wrinkled brows in golf.

He is only 41, and presumably this is a hiccup and not a trend. Presumably, as the year goes on, we will see repeats of last year’s Phil-like drama on the 72nd hole here, where he had the gallery — not to mention leader-in-the-clubhouse Bubba Watson — convinced that he could fly in an eagle shot from 72 yards to force a playoff. In typical dramatic Phil fashion, he missed by four feet.


Even on a back-nine walk that was spoiled for both Mickelson and his faithful by the reality that he would not make the cut, that there would be no 2012 tomorrows for Phil at Torrey, Mickelson gave them another Phil moment to remember.

On the 435-yard eighth hole of the North Course, a par-four that was the 17th hole of Mickelson’s round after he started on the 10th, he yanked his drive about 65 yards right of the fairway and behind a couple of huge trees. By this stage, there was nothing at stake, but the challenge seemed to stir him.

This is a player, remember, who has won millions of dollars hitting clutch shots over people’s porches and off the awnings of taco trucks. He has also lost millions doing the same thing. This trait of all-in poker player, along with his willingness to sign autographs until the light from the moon slips behind a cloud, has endeared him to golf fans forever.

But Friday, with two holes to go and no chance to make the cut, there seemed no need to go for it. Except, this was Phil, and undoubtedly a little voice was telling him these people deserved something before he left them to march the fairways this weekend alongside Sang-Moon Bae.


And so, with a huge crowd forming a funnel around him, with the two big trees staring him in the face, and with a sizable bunker in front of the green about 170 yards away, Mickelson hitched up his pants, took a swing and let it fly. The first sound was the ball knocking some leaves off the first tree, followed quickly by more leaves getting knocked off the second tree. That was followed by a pause and an eruption of spectator glee as the ball settled on the green, about 30 feet below the cup.

Mickelson hadn’t given them their money’s worth for the weekend, but he had given them some great water-cooler material to hold them over until the next time he tries to hit it through the windmill and into the clown’s mouth.

Afterward, he repeated, for wave after wave of media, how his current failing was that he has been unable to take his great practice sessions onto the course when he plays.

“I’m not sure why that is,” he said.


He also said: “I don’t feel bad about my game. I really don’t.”

But he was quick to add the obvious: “All that matters out there is the score. It doesn’t matter how you get it.”

And so, halfway through its 2012 edition, the bright lights on the marquee of the Farmers Insurance Open dimmed a bit. Departing was the projected star of the show, with 39 tour victories, four of them majors. Remaining was a leader board with 10 names and a total of one major, Justin Leonard’s 1997 British Open.

“Unfortunately,” Mickelson said, “I’m going to have the weekend off.”


A ton of fans and a handful of tournament organizers would agree.