This is why fans line up to high-five Phil Mickelson.
In a scene that easily could have been a rebroadcast of the 18th hole two years ago at Winged Foot, there was Way Left Lefty, in the rough deep in the trees well left of the fairway.
Having pushed another critical tee shot — Mickelson stepped on the tee at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, better known as the Colonial before the suits got involved, tied with Rod Pampling and Tim Clark for the lead — and found himself in the kind of trouble golf fans have come to expect from him down the stretch with a tournament hanging in the balance.
Few times since Mickelson wrecked Winged Foot by double-bogeying away the U.S. Open has he walked up the 18th fairway to the green with the congratulatory applause that accompanies a tournament win that’s in the bag. There was the mess in Scotland. The near-water landing at the 18th at The Players Championship last year. Etc. Etc. Etc.
And this was more of the same, it seemed. In jail under the trees, albeit just 140 yards or so from home. Pampling, who was having his own troubles staying straight on the back nine, was dead in the middle of the fairway, holding a short iron and the advantage.
But Phil is Phil.
He took out one of the five wedges in his bag this week — the 52-degree one it turns out, which means virtually nothing to most of us hackers — surveyed the scene and the situation.
Par might mean a playoff. Bogey means at best second place, maybe third. Birdie could mean win.
But birdie? From there?
He had to first go under one tree, then over another. This was jail. This was dead. This was punch-out-and-hope territory. Remember, he had the necessary wedges to make par.
Whatever. This is Phil. Not Chip Beck. He rather lay out than lay up.
Needing some sort of physics to rival the JFK magic bullet theory, Lefty let it rip. Under the first tree, maybe clipping something off the second tree, the ball ascended on a workable arc. Lefty jumped from his follow-through and skipped out to the fairway to watch the descent.
The shot of the year — this was better than Tiger Woods’ hat-slammer to win Bay Hill — landed softly on the green, nine feet from the cup and victory. Naturally, Mickelson walked up and drained it, shoving a hard left-handed fist-pump downward to signify what had just happened.
The 20 minutes it took for the events to play out symbolize why Lefty, who now has two of golf’s signature wins this year at Riviera and Colonial, is so endeared by golf fans. Even though we don’t have the shots in our bags that he does, we don’t like to play it safe either.
Lay up and go with a 9 iron into the par-5, or blast something that you hope clears the 185-yard carry?
You paid for this round, you want to go for it.
Golf fans marvel at Woods’ precision and his own flair for the dramatic, which is considerable. No one will ever hole that chip at 16 at Augusta again.
But at the same time, reckless abandon isn’t in Woods’ DNA. He won’t potentially throw everything away for the chance to make something happen. He’ll do what he knows he can do.
Mickelson will do what he thinks he can do.
And so fans agonize over his failures like Winged Foot. But that’s what makes the shot at Colonial so wonderful.
We know what could’ve happened. We’ve seen it.
At the same time, while he’s in his backswing, we know Lefty might let us in on something we’ve never seen before.