The lost sum­mer of Mick­el­son

Dis­ap­point­ing sum­mer leaves pro search­ing for an­swers

The Covington News - - SPORTS - Doug Fer­gu­son The As­so­ci­ated Press

TULSA — Be­neath a blis­ter­ing sun and sur­rounded by cheers, Tiger Woods and Phil Mick­el­son climbed the steep hill to­gether to­ward the club­house at South­ern Hills.

They were sep­a­rated by some 30 yards. And they could not have been farther apart.

This was Satur­day at the PGA Cham­pi­onship, the fi­nal ma­jor of the year. Mick­el­son was on the 18th green, fin­ish­ing an­other round over par that left him in the mid­dle of the pack. Woods was mak­ing the turn on the ad­ja­cent ninth green, on his way to win­ning an­other ma­jor.

The scene spoke vol­umes of their di­ver­gent sea­sons.

Only three months ear­lier, Mick­el­son was walk­ing up an­other hill to­ward the sprawl­ing club­house of the TPC Saw­grass, his arm draped around the shoul­der of swing coach Butch Har­mon af­ter a vic­tory at The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship. It set the stage for what fig­ured to be an­other run at the world’s No. 1 player.

What fol­lowed was Lefty’s lost sum­mer.

“My per­for­mance in the ma­jors has been dis­ap­point­ing,” Mick­el­son said as he sat in front of his locker, a tinge of gray hair start­ing to show around the ears. He is 37, still in his prime, but an age when lost years are tougher to get back.

An in­jury to his left wrist at the end of May caused him to with­draw in the mid­dle of one tour­na­ment, pull out of two other tour­na­ments and was a big rea­son why he missed the cut in three tour­na­ments. Some of the low­lights: - He fin­ished over par in all four ma­jors for the first time. - He failed to record a top 10 in the ma­jors for only the sec­ond time. - Since turn­ing pro in 1992, Mick­el­son had missed five cuts in the ma­jors. This year he missed the cut in two.

Most of this was out of his hands, if not his wrist.

He says the in­jury stemmed from one of his marathon prac­tice ses­sions for a ma­jor, chip­ping con­stantly out of the thick grass at Oak­mont a week be­fore the U.S. Open. What­ever the case, he couldn’t play as much as he wanted or prac­tice how he wanted.

Those close to Mick­el­son said he could not swing with­out pain un­til a week ago. He is start­ing to hit balls with­out winc­ing, but what makes him shud­der is the cal­en­dar. This is the time of the year when Lefty goes into hi­ber­na­tion.

In­stead, he plans to play four straight weeks dur­ing the FedEx Cup play­offs, the Pres­i­dents Cup, and then two weeks off be­fore an un­usu­ally busy sched­ule in the fall.

Mick­el­son said he would play the Fry’s Elec­tron­ics Open at Gray­hawk Golf Club in Scotts­dale, Ariz., where he re­mains a mem­ber. Even rarer is a two-week trip to Asia in early Novem­ber for the Sin­ga­pore Open and the HSBC Cham­pi­ons in China. The ma­jors are over. Mick­el­son is just now start­ing to get his hands dirty.

He is work­ing on some new equip­ment from Call­away, and he feels as though he can fi­nally re­sume work with Har­mon that be­gan at the end of April.

“Rather than shut­ting it down, I want to prac­tice and I want to be in com­pe­ti­tion,” Mick­el­son said. “I want to con­tinue to work with Butch and de­velop the long game. I’ve been pro­hib­ited from do­ing that the last 10 weeks.”

The year has not been a to­tal loss. Mick­el­son looked as good as ever when he won by five shots at Peb­ble Beach, and he nearly made it two in a row at Riviera un­til a poor chip on the 72nd hole dropped him into a play­off won by Charles Howell III.

And he does not take The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship lightly.

“Win­ning the Play­ers is the next best tour­na­ment to win, so that sal­vages the year,” he said. “And I’m ex­cited about the FedEx Cup, which I didn’t ex­pect to be.”

Mick­el­son fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son more than 14,000 points be­hind Woods. But when the play­offs be­gin next week in New York, most likely with­out Woods, the points will be re­set and Mick­el­son will be only 2,000 points back as the No. 4 seed.

“If I play well, I have a good chance of be­ing the in­au­gu­ral cham­pion,” Mick­el­son said.

Would that also sal­vage his year?

Prob­a­bly, al­though even Mick­el­son is still try­ing to grasp the sig­nif­i­cance of the FedEx Cup.

“When Hor­ton Smith won the first, he had no idea what the al­lure of the Masters would be­come,” Mick­el­son said. “And there’s a good chance the FedEx Cup will one day have that same al­lure. There’s also a chance that in four years from now, it will be a flop. I don’t know.”

Given his year, there’s no telling how he will fare the next four weeks. Mick­el­son points to a sea­son that in­cludes two vic­to­ries and two play­off losses (Nis­san Open, Scot­tish Open), along with three missed cuts.

“There has been no mid­dle of the road for me this year,” he said.

Mick­el­son fin­ished his year in the ma­jors with 16 con­sec­u­tive pars, a string bro­ken with his birdie on the 17th hole that gave him a 69 and a tie for 32nd in the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

So ended a streak of three straight years win­ning a ma­jor, which sets him apart from the other top chal­lengers to Woods’ do­main. Ernie Els also has three ma­jors, none since 2002. Vi­jay Singh won his third ma­jor in 2004 and hasn’t sniffed one since.

Woods has com­pe­ti­tion, but seem­ingly no se­ri­ous threat. For Mick­el­son, the next four months might de­ter­mine whether he can be one again.

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