Friday 22 March 2019

'In the right place, at the right time, magic can happen'

Phil Mickelson. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Phil Mickelson. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Dermot Gilleece

Linking two Pebble Beach triumphs 25 years apart brings rich insight to the perennial challenge of simply getting the ball in the hole. Where Phil Mickelson used a claw putting grip to complete a closing 65 in the AT&T Pro-Am last Monday, Johnny Miller employed a comparable method when struggling to the same title in 1994.

Both triumphs will undoubtedly be noted by future historians when they set about recording great moments at this paradise by the Pacific. Miller's swansong made such an impact that the TV images still burn brightly.

Though Mickelson's achievement, at 48, was clearly special, it's not often that a duel between rivals aged 46 and 44 years could be said to have shaken the game to its roots. That's how Pat Sullivan of the San Francisco Chronicle described a scene where a closing 74 was enough to give Miller a one-stroke victory, while the same figure consigned his playing partner, Tom Watson, to a share of second place.

Prior to last Monday, Mickelson hadn't won on US soil since the 2013 Phoenix Open. For Miller, however, the gap was seven years on any terrain, back to 1987, when the same AT&T event delivered what he described as "a goodbye wish". Though he failed to succumb totally to retirement's call, all resistance was removed the next time around.

"Congratulations: now get back in the booth," was Watson's playful reaction.

Since 1990, Miller had combined very occasional competitive play with TV analysis for NBC, from which he officially stood down early this month.

On what became a trying afternoon with the blade for both players, I remember feeling very much on edge watching Miller anxiously tackle long putts with the index and middle fingers of his left hand curled on the grip. On shorter ones, his index finger extended down the grip. Miraculously, he didn't three-putt.

Had he, through bi-location, been capable of observing from the commentary box those 40-somethings struggling to get the ball into the hole, I wonder what he would have made of it all. With the stated objective on TV of "stripping the clothes off players while leaving their underwear on", he famously said of Mickelson: "If he couldn't chip, he'd be selling cars in San Diego."

He confessed to overstepping the mark, however, during the 1999 Ryder Cup matches at Brookline. That was when he said of Justin Leonard on the Saturday: "My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television." This was 24 hours before the Texan gained the decisive half-point in his singles against Jose-Maria Olazabal.

Incidentally, back in the 1990s, the claw was viewed as the last refuge of struggling putters whereas nowadays, a variation of it is being used most effectively by Mickelson and Justin Rose, among others.

Miller went on to become the most respected golf analyst of his generation, with a reputation for walking a course at daybreak so as to familiarise himself with all the pin positions. This crossed my mind during US Open week in 1998 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, which he estimated he had played more than 1,000 times.

I met Miller in a local golf outlet doing some promotional work in the company of ageing rock star, Alice Cooper. Recalling his early years as an Olympic Club member, he told me: "I was playing off plus-two handicap as a 16-year-old and plus-four at 18 [when he was tied eighth in the 1966 US Open]. That was considered to be fairly hot on a course where most strangers could be expected to shoot 10 or even 20 strokes higher than their normal game."

When I suggested there would be no need for homework that week, he produced a three-foot spirit level with which he would assess the slopes of every green on the course. "I try to look for that something special, doing things that other guys don't," he said simply.

A year later, he was applying the same philosophy to a visit to The European Club. With the steady expansion of his golf-course design business, he felt in need of a refresher course on the subtleties of links terrain, 23 years on from his Open Championship triumph at Royal Birkdale.

"This has to be the toughest links I've played and I would love to see the British Open here," he enthused of Pat Ruddy's handiwork. "With the addition of a little rough, an Open field would really have to work. I would rate it way ahead of Carnoustie."

He first experienced our links terrain back in 1965 in matches for Brigham Young against the British Universities at Royal Portrush and against the Irish Universities at Portmarnock. City of Derry international Frank McCarroll recalled of the Portrush encounter: "He shot 70 to my 73 and was one of the finest putters I had ever seen."

My last meeting with him was at the 2014 Masters, where Rory McIlroy was only months away from winning his third and fourth Major championships. "Lack of consistency deprived me of the ability to dominate tournament golf, and Rory has the same problem," he said, with remarkable prescience.

By way of summarising the amazing 1994 happenings at Pebble Beach, Miller remarked: "It goes to show you that in the right place, at the right time, magic can happen." Just like it did for Mickelson last weekend - far from any car showroom.

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