This victory was his third at the event and his 41st overall. It had been such a long time since he was in contention, though, that Mickelson conceded to NBC’s Steve Sands in his post-round interview that he was nervous entering the final round and his play early in the round indicated that.
Mickelson struggled early and allowed Brandt Snedeker to climb to within three shots. When it looked like a Mickelson collapse might be in the works, he then righted the ship, made a few long putts and was able to cruise to a relatively easy victory.
Mickelson was flawless from tee to green all week. After a poor performance last week at Torrey Pines, he put a new Callaway driver in his bag this week and his driving improved immensely.
Mickelson’s driving has always been his Achilles Heel, but he showed what he can do when he is consistently putting the ball in the fairway.
At a course that was giving up low numbers all week, Mickelson shot 28 under and his total of 256 was one shot away from a PGA Tour record.
What we witnessed this week was a new Phil Mickelson. Yes, he is still the fan-favorite that is never afraid to go for it and, even with a comfortable lead, he still manages to keep his fans on the edge of their seats (i.e. his drive Sunday on the 17th hole that nearly ended up in the water), but the rest of his game has seen some changes.
After what he called an “emergency session” with his coach Butch Harmon following last week’s performance, Mickelson’s swing was tighter and he had more control over his golf ball. He was consistently getting the ball pin-high from the fairway and, even when he got himself into trouble, his patented short game was still there to bail him out.
Mickelson is arguably the most beloved player on the PGA Tour by fans, but he is not the player he once was. This win was his first since Pebble Beach last year and he only legitimately contended in a few tournaments last year.
This tournament will probably be remembered for what critics are calling Mickelson’s “59 1/2” on Thursday. He started on the 10th hole, birdied the first four holes and never looked back. His iron play was impeccable and the whispers on 59 began circulating the grounds.
After a birdie on the par-three seventh hole, Mickelson was 11-under for the day and needed one more birdie on either of the last two holes to break 60 on the par-71 layout. His 20 foot birdie putt on the eighth hole fell inches short, then, after placing his approach shot 25 feet from the hole on the ninth, his birdie putt horseshoed out of the hole, leaving Mickelson shocked and his caddy Jim Mackay on his knees in disbelief.
His first round 60 was still good enough for a four-shot lead after Day 1 and his lead was never seriously threatened again.
Last year, Mickelson’s win at Pebble Beach in a Sunday duel with Tiger Woods was supposed to propel him to a great 2012 season. Instead, 2012 was one of Mickelson’s worst seasons as a pro.
So, what will make this year different?
This year will be different because of Mickelson’s improved putting. He has made a living contending on tour without hitting many fairways, so erratic driving is nothing new, but the reason for last year’s slump was his putting.
Despite his pension for missing short putts in crunch time, Mickelson has consistently been one of the best putters on tour throughout his career, but he struggled with the flat stick in 2012.
At the end of 2012, Mickelson worked with putting guru Dave Stockton and began using a modified claw grip in order to remedy is putting woes. Since that time, Mickelson’s game has turned around and he has felt more comfortable on the greens.
Mickelson has always had success early in the year on the west coast, but that had not always translated to success through the meat of the PGA Tour schedule.
At 42, Mickelson’s best days are behind him, but, if can maintain his solid play on the greens, this will not be his only win in 2013 and he will be in contention at the majors.