Tuesday 23 January 2018

Seve was my boyhood hero – Phil Mickelson

Tiger Woods speaks at a news conference ahead of the Farmers Insurance Open
Tiger Woods speaks at a news conference ahead of the Farmers Insurance Open

Karl MacGinty

Phil Mickelson gets about as close as any of today's elite professional golfers to the swashbuckling style and rampaging spirit of the late Seve Ballesteros.

So it was fascinating yesterday to hear this modern American icon nominate Spanish legend Seve as the player who made the greatest impression on him in boyhood.

And as he prepared to tee it up today for the 25th time in his home town event, the Farmers Insurance Open, at Torrey Pines in San Diego, Mickelson spoke fondly of the magic of playing with Ballesteros here way back in 1988.

APPEARANCE

Mickelson was 17 and used to playing the renowned South Course at Torrey Pines with his high school team when he won one of two spots available to amateurs in the event, while Seve was making what turned out to be his second and final appearance at Torrey Pines.

Ernie Gonzalez, a San Diego local playing on the PGA Tour at that time, arranged a practice round for Mickelson with Ballesteros and the Spaniard did not disappoint.

"So often you'll look up to certain people and when you finally meet them it will be a let-down but Seve was never a let-down," Mickelson said.

"I'd a chance to spend a lot of time with Seve over the years. We were with Hugo Boss, appeared in a number of photo shoots together and played practice rounds together.

"From day one when I played with him he was gracious, classy, entertaining, exciting to watch and helpful."

Mickelson's only regret that first day they played at Torrey Pines was that Ballesteros wasn't interested in giving the teenager a chance to play him for cash or pride.

"He didn't keep score. He'd hit two or three balls and he would pick up," the Californian explained, adding with a grin: "I actually wanted a little game, but that didn't pan out."

While several golfers won more Majors than Seve's five, very few are remembered with the same affection as Ballesteros.

In a similar way, Mickelson is more warmly regarded by the golf public than Tiger Woods.

Though the greatest player of his and arguably any generation, Woods has been more aloof and austere in his lifelong quest to break the record 18 Major championships won by Jack Nicklaus.

It's not by chance that the most recent of Tiger's Major championships victories, the 2008 US Open, was achieved on the South Course at Torrey Pines or that last year's win at The Farmers was his seventh in this PGA Tour event at this venue.

It's equally significant that all three of Mickelson's wins in his home event were before the South Course was extensively remodelled by Rees Jones before the 2008 US Open to fit the identikit picture of golf's most grinding event.

Or that the US Open is the only one of the four Majors Mickelson has yet to win after his stunning Open success at Muirfield last July.

Yet the 43-year-old expressed confidence yesterday in his ability to break his duck in his own national championship after a record six second-place finishes.

"I love the fact that I've one to go to complete the career Grand Slam," he said, when asked about the enormity of next June's US Open at Pinehurst, where the first of that heartbreaking litany of runner-up finishes came in 1999.

"I'm not going to hide from it," Mickelson added. "That's a career goal for me, though I feel if I don't achieve it at Pinehurst, I've played well enough at the US Open to believe I will win it elsewhere – and probably a couple of times."

Tempting though it is to view this week or even the season as 'Tiger versus Phil', the greatest battle Mickelson and especially Woods face at the Majors in 2014 will be to overcome demons within.

In Tiger's estimation, the rough this week at Torrey Pines is as lush and dense as it was for the US Open and the greens are just as hard, suggesting the South Course will once again play against Mickelson and into the hands of Woods.

Irish Independent

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