What was the best round of golf played on the PGA Tour in 2012? You can make a case for Rory McIlroy’s bogeyless 66 on Sunday at the PGA Championship, when he tamed the brutal Ocean Course and won his second major championship by a whopping eight strokes. How about Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey’s closing 60 to win at Sea Island? It’s an easy course, sure, but a 60 is a 60. Special mention must also be made of Brandt Snedeker’s third round 64 at the Tour Championship, which propelled him to an $11 million payday, and Ernie Els’ back-to-the-future 68 in nasty conditions at the British Open, which put so much pressure on Adam Scott he came undone on the closing holes, handing Els a second Claret jug.
Good choices, all, but last year one round towered above all others: Phil Mickelson’s 64 to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. It had all the ingredients for a transcendent moment: The best golf course in the world, a worthy opponent in Tiger Woods, Mickelson’s career-long adversary, and a larger meaning, as the win was the 40th of Mickelson’s career and served as a sort of real-time highlight film in the run-up to his Hall of Fame induction, which came less than three months later.
“Excluding the four major championships he’s won, this has to be the best final round of his career,” said Mickelson’s caddie of two decades, Jim Mackay.
Mickelson was six strokes off the lead of journeyman Charlie Wi at the start of the final round, but the tournament-within-the-tournament was with his playing partner Woods. It was a dream matchup for Mickelson, who in the last five years has learned to elevate his game in the presence of a player who had denied him so many victories around the turn of the century. (In eight of their previous 11 rounds together, Mickelson had posted the lower score, including four in a row on Sundays.) For Woods, competing with Mickelson is like trying to beat an overbearing older brother, and he seemed bothered from the very beginning of the round, missing short putts and hitting loose short-irons on Pebble’s exploitable opening holes. Mickelson, meanwhile, was focused and fired-up, birdying the second, fourth and fifth holes on the strength of gorgeous approach shots. On Pebble’s par-5 sixth hole, Mickelson buried a 25-footer for eagle, taking the lead from a faltering Wi and moving two ahead of a dispirited Woods, who then sulked his way to three consecutive bogeys. Woods at last showed a little fight, by holing out a bunker shot on the 12th hole for a birdie, but Mickelson stepped up and drained a crucial 30-footer for par.
“I just feel very inspired when I play with him,” Mickelson said of Woods. “I love playing with him, and he brings out some of my best golf. I seem more focused.”
Mickelson’s round was a monument to the shorter, tighter, more repeatable swing he’s honed under instructor Butch Harmon. On Sunday, Mickelson hit 13 of 14 fairways and impressed a very discerning audience.
“He was hitting it flush,” said Woods, who shot 75 to fade to 15th place. “…And his wedge game was right on the money.” One of Harmon’s points of emphasis has been to get Mickelson to control, and vary, the spin and trajectories of his approach shots. On the 13th hole, the pin was at the back of a steeply pitched green. After a perfect drive, Mickelson had 140 yards left. That’s a comfortable distance for his pitching wedge, but a towering shot with a lot of backspin would have sucked back to the front of the green. So Mickelson pulled an 8-iron and played a low shot with minimal spin. His ball skittered and trickled to within two feet of the hole for a kick-in birdie. A laser-like approach shot on 14 led to another birdie, and then Mickelson ended any suspense when he brushed in another 30-footer to save par on the 15th hole. His bogeyless 64 gave him four career victories at the Pro-Am, only one behind the record tally of Mark O’Meara.
Mickelson’s success at Pebble Beach has much to do with his comfort level when visiting the area, going back to when he made his pro debut here at the 1992 U.S. Open. An epicurean and an oenophile, he can talk knowledgeably about the local restaurant scene.
He has become good friends with Charles Schwab and is a frequent guest at the billionaire investor’s home on Pebble’s fifth hole. “We talk about everything but golf,” says Schwab. Mickelson has cultivated friendships with a number of Cypress Point members, and in the days before the 2012 tournament, he twice played the famous course, enjoying the fellowship of his hosts and a peaceful place to hone his game.
Mickelson resides in his native San Diego, and his wife Amy and three children almost always come up to Pebble for the weekend, a morale boost for golf’s most high-profile family man. In fact, he credited his latest victory to his college sweetheart. He had gotten off to a slow start in the tournament, and during Mickelson’s second round–which began on the 10th hole at Monterey Peninsula Country Club–he missed a short par putt on the 18th hole. He was, in Amy’s words, “pretty mopey.” Between nines she pulled her hubby aside for a pep talk.
“She said, come on now, cheer up, let’s go make some birdies,” Mickelson said. “It was her bubbly, positive attitude that got me going.”
In cold and windy and rainy conditions, Mickelson played his final nine holes in 29 to get back into the tournament, setting the stage for his epic final round.
In the first blush of victory, Mickelson was asked how he felt. He said, “It feels great, because it’s a special place for me, Pebble Beach.” Even more special now that he has added to the lore of the tournament and burnished his own legend with one more unforgettable round.
The 2013 AT&T National Pro-Am tournament runs February 4-10. For more information, go to www.attpbgolf.com.