By Kevin Manahan, Newark Star Ledger
Each morning at dawn, they had swarmed Baltusrol Golf Club, performed their duty, and then disappeared -- unseen by even the first fans through the gates, undetected by the television cameras, unknown to the golfers –- a clandestine society known not by a secret handshake or an identifying tattoo, but by wide plastic rakes: They were The Rough Fluffers.
Before every round of the PGA Championship, this covert bluegrass battalion, headquartered in the shrub-shrouded maintenance building at the far corner of the property, combed the gnarly stuff around the greens. "We want to make sure everyone gets the same lie," director of grounds Mark Kuhns said with a smirk. "You know, nasty ones."
There would be no matted lies, no errant shots propped up by trampled blades. All golf balls, Kuhns insisted, would sink to the bottom. Okay, so they took a shot, lengthened the 17th hole to 650 yards and John Daly still reached the green in two. So what? This major would be decided by its rough, by the four-inch, Miracle-Gro-fed tentacles designed to ...
What, you haven't heard about the rough at Baltusrol?
Think Don King. Think Don King with a green dye job. Think Don King with a green dye job using a balsam shampoo. Think Don King with a green dye job using a balsam shampoo ... with Ian Poulter as his hair stylist.
Now you understand.
And so, on the final day of the PGA Championship, when Phil Mickelson's approach shot to the 18th hole was snatched by The Thick Stuff, somewhere The Rough Fluffers glanced at each other and nodded, maybe even winked. Because if Mickelson was going to escape the stickiest ball-groping patch of grass in all of New Jersey and make birdie on the final hole to win the second major championship of his career -– as you know he did –- he would have to overcome one more foe: The Rough Fluffers.
For four days, Mickelson had taken on all comers. He had conquered a heat index of more than 100 degrees and humidity that made golfers sweat more than a downhill three-footer to win the U.S. Open. For the first two rounds, Lefty had romped over a storied golf course that had given him the run of the yard when he had sprinted to 8-under par, but he spent the final three days straining against the leash. He had wrestled with his emotions while giving away a three-shot lead on Sunday. He had dodged lightning bolts and snapping tree limbs, shrugged off Sunday's delayed tee time and suspended round. He had slept (probably fitfully) on a three-foot putt he left on No. 14 when play had been halted until Monday morning.
He had walked among the thousands of his adoring fans who had turned Baltusrol into Philstock, signing autographs and high-fiving them. But he also had ridden the emotional roller coaster with them, and it had felt like four-and-a-half days in the front seat of Kingda Ka.
He had been fighting off a leaderboard of players who had won majors (Steve Elkington and Davis Love III) and one who seemed ready (Thomas Bjorn), and, all the while, he had refrained from glancing over his shoulder at the world's greatest golfer, who was closing fast after barely making the cut (C'mon, you don't really need a name here, do you?).
And now The Rough Fluffers were out to get him, too.
After Mickelson's second shot –- a 3- wood that landed short and right of the 18th green on the par-5, 554-yard hole –- he was looking at a 40-foot chip from a lie so bad that:
a) caddie Jim Mackay had asked roving TV analyst David Feherty to find the ball, so Mackay or Mickelson wouldn't accidentally step on it and incur a one-shot penalty;
b) when Feherty finally found the ball, Mackay's first reaction was, "I'm glad I don't have to hit that shot";
c) when Mickelson paced the distance to the pin and looked for the spot on the green to land the ball, Mackay stayed behind to keep an eye on the peek-a-boo lie, standing rigidly above the ball and pointing at it like a hunting dog;
d) before Feherty located the ball, The PGA had asked NASA for help, but even spy satellites couldn't find it.
Okay, we made the last one up, but you get the idea: The lie was nasty.
But Mickelson had something going for him: History.
Looking for some good karma, he had genuflected to tradition in the 18th fairway minutes earlier when he had tapped the Nicklaus plaque with his 3-wood before hitting the approach shot. Maybe to hit a great shot, it's a good idea to acknowledge another, and the Golden Bear's 1-iron –- uphill into the wind from 236 yards –- to win the 1967 U.S. Open had long been considered the most magical single-swing result in Baltusrol's 110 years. (Well, until now anyway.)
But just in case tapping the plaque –- golf's equivalent of stroking the Blarney Stone, palming the tree stump at the Apollo Theater or rubbing Don Zimmer's head –- wouldn't be enough, there was a mob of about 10,000 fans ready to help write history, ready to will their hero to victory and thereby squeeze the life out of Mickelson's reputation as the greatest golfer to win just one major.
These were the same fans who had given Mickelson some tough love on Monday: "Please don't choke, Phil. I skipped work for this!" one shouted. But they were the same fans who –- like Uri Gellers –- somehow had steered birdie putts by Elkington and Bjorn away from the cup on No. 18. Elkington's bid had singed the lip from 10 feet, and Bjorn's 20-footer, pointed at the heart of the cup for 19-and-a-half feet, inexplicably veered off and lipped out.
Still, there was more history on his side: Mickelson had been hitting these improbable flop shots from impossible lies since he had been in Huggies. (When interviewed about the thick Bermudagrass in the Mickelson's back yard in San Diego, the family lawnmower replied: "There's a back yard?") So, while Mackay fretted, Mickelson shrugged.
"The lie doesn't look that bad," he said.
While Mickelson took a deep breath, millions held theirs. He swung hard, and the wedge sliced through the grass like a sickle –- phwwwwet! The ball popped 10 feet into the air and couldn't have landed more softly if the green had been a Tempur-Pedic mattress. With the ball still rolling, Mickelson pumped his fists and raised his arms in triumph, amid the biggest roar in New Jersey this side of Newark Liberty Airport. The ball stopped two feet from the hole.
Take that, Rough Fluffers!
A tap-in, group hugs and a releasing of the doves –- the Mickelson children –- made it official: Phil Mickelson had won the 87th PGA Championship at 4-under par, one shot ahead of Elkington and Bjorn, two shots better than Love and Tiger Woods, who had been seeking his third major championship of the year.
Not since Bob Tway's holed-out bunker shot at Inverness in 1986 had a player won the PGA Championship with a birdie in the last group on the 72nd hole.
With the victory, Mickelson –- the 2004 Masters champion –- joined Woods, Nick Faldo and Curtis Strange as the only golfers to win majors in consecutive seasons in the past 20 years.
"It was a chip shot that I had hit tens of thousands of times in my backyard," Mickelson said. "I hit it very confidently and aggressively, and the ball popped out perfectly."
Before his breakthrough at the Masters, Mickelson had said his goal was never to win just one major. He would win several, he insisted. He just had to get over the hump of the first one. It took 46 tries to win the first. Now, he has won two of the past eight, and he is halfway to the career Grand Slam, with the British Open and U.S. Open trophies missing. It's "a long-term goal to get the other two," he admitted.
The U.S. Open title could come next year at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., surrounded by Phil's Phanatics.
If nothing else, the PGA Championship shows that his best golf is still ahead. While Woods tweaks his swing, Mickelson, 35, says he is still learning how to win majors –- using his cut shot to keep his ball on Teflon fairways, fairways, missing his shots on the correct side of the green, even tapping a PGA club professional, like Baltusrol's Director of Golf Doug Steffen, for some local knowledge about an unfamiliar course.
"I've got a number of years left, good years in which my game can continue to improve," Mickelson said. "I look at some great players from the past that didn't start winning big tournaments until their mid-30s, and I want to try to get better and better as my career goes on, as opposed to thinking that I've hit some milestone by making it from zero to one major or one major to two majors. It's not really the results or how many trophies. It's trying to get better."
With the Wanamaker Trophy, however, came $1.17 million ... and acceptance into the Metropolitan Area family:
"You're one of us now, Phil!" someone shouted from the greenside grandstands.
He answered with a thumbs-up and a smile, the same smile that never left his face all week, through eagles and birdies, through bogeys and blown leads. Even through a trying lie at the final hole.
"If there's one guy who could get up-and-down from there, it's Phil Mickelson," Bjorn said. "He's not a one-major guy, he's a 10-major guy, and it's going to be easier for him to win them now."
Rough Fluffers or no Rough Fluffers.