Next generation? Not if Mickelson has anything to say about it

By Mark Purdy
Published on

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Just when the young guns threatened to charge onto the tee boxes and take over the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, along came the old left-hander to set them straight.

In fact, Friday's panorama was absurdly cinematic. As the Pacific surf splashed with violent magnificence alongside the fairways, here was Phil Mickelson searing across the horizon like a classic and familiar Beach Boys song.

Doing it again. Going low at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Shooting a 6-under-par 65. Tied for third, one stroke off the lead going into the weekend at a place where he has won four times previously.

"I love this tournament," Mickelson said after completing his round.

You think?

Mickelson is 45 years old. This puts him roughly two decades ahead of current PGA Tour hotshots such as Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, ranked first and third in the world. Both are playing in the Pro-Am. Neither is in the top 10 after two rounds.

Obviously, this situation could change. But for now, Mickelson is in the driver's seat to potentially claim his fifth AT&T title, tying him with Mark O'Meara for most ever at Pebble.

That is, Mickelson is in the driver's seat if he can just figure out which driver to use. He tried a new one Thursday and called himself "an idiot" for making that choice as he "struggled" to a 68 at Spyglass Hill.

Friday, Mickelson switched back to his usual driver and screamed out of the gate at MPCC's Shore Course with five birdies and an eagle over his first 10 holes. He cooled off to go 1 over the rest of the way but felt satisfied with his position.

So what's the difference between the two drivers?

"One goes straight and one goes the other way," Mickelson said with a deadpan expression.

In so many ways, it was good to see him making jokes again. Mickelson has been in the longest victory drought of his career. He hasn't won since the 2013 British Open, more than two years ago. In response, he lost some weight, dismissed instructor Butch Harmon in November and has enlisted new teacher Andrew Getson.

The end result: A retooled swing and a seeming Mickelson confidence boost.

"He seems energized, excited, talking about the game," said pro Justin Rose, who sits one shot behind Mickelson after two rounds. "He's enjoying it again. He seems hungry for it. I overheard a conversation in the locker room he was having with some of the guys, and he seems to really like this golf course."

Hey, let's be honest. Mickelson has basically carried on a 20-year romance with every inch of Pebble real estate on the three courses used for the Pro-Am. He also enjoys the format, loves the interaction with the celebrities and CEOs in the amateur field.

Friday was a good example. As Mickelson waited to tee off at No. 17, he watched comedian Larry The Cable Guy tee off at nearby No. 5.

"I didn't know you were a lefty," Mickelson shouted at Larry. "I like that."

"I learned that off your video!" Larry yelled back, then in an aside to the crowd meant for Mickelson to hear, joked: "He charges too much for the app, though."

Mickelson smiled and prepared to hit. The crowds still love him, no question. When his drives hooked right on both of the last two holes, the gallery applauded anyway.

It's too early in Mickelson's revamped incarnation to tell where it's going, exactly. This is his fourth tournament of the year. He missed the cut in one of the previous three. But the past two days have been very promising. When asked Friday to assess where his game is compared to where he wants it to be, Mickelson wasn't guarded.

"It's pretty much there," he said. "The last piece is just mentally being ... performing under the clutch."

The clutch part, he could certainly take care of over his next 36 holes -- all of which will unfold at the Pebble Beach links he could play blindfolded. He knows how to putt the greens. He knows how the wind blows. Mickelson's first AT&T was in 1995, two years before Tiger Woods played in it for the first time. Mickelson is still playing in the AT&T in 2016, four years since Woods last played here, perhaps for good.

Mickelson's only Pebble regret -- and it's a mild one -- is that he had to skip the tournament last year for a family obligation.

"I've developed some traditions here over the years," Mickelson said. "Whether it's the restaurants where I eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, or if it's the people I have dinner with. We've had those little traditions that have been going on for many years. When I missed it last year, it was a lot more than just the golf and tournament that I missed. I missed the whole environment."

You know what's another local tradition? Phil Mickelson, the old Pebble Beach boy, holding up a trophy on Sunday afternoon.

This article was written by Mark Purdy from Mercury News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.