Gifted player with a point to prove

IF not Tiger, who? Woods is almost unbackable but favourites can be beaten.

It happens all the time. And if he is to miss out on becoming the first golfer to win the green jacket in three successive years, then there's a queue of great players lining up to take over the mantle.

Chief among them has to be Phil Mickelson, one of the most gifted players ever to grace the game. He can do most things on the golf course drive it for miles, hit the most precise of irons shots, pitch and chip with the most sublime touches, putt like an angel.

He has won 21 times on the US Tour, competed in a whole host of Ryder Cup matches and made enough money to very nearly fund the American side of the Iraqi war. But, as even the Martians are well aware, he has yet to claim a major championship. True, he's only 32 and time is still very much on his side but you have to wonder. So does the man himself, hard though he tries to play it all down.

He insists that he's relaxed, especially now that his third child has arrived. Wife Amy and son Evan Samuel are doing well after some complications with the birth on March 23. He also insists that he's in his element this week, playing a long, wet Augusta National favouring just about every part of his formidable game.

So, will this be the week? Will he finally get the job done?

"As far as results go, I'm not going to worry about it," he says. "I feel like I'm playing okay and I'll try as hard as I can over every shot for 72 holes."

Nothing unusual there except that until Phil wins a major, the gap in his record will get bigger with each miss. He has come closer than anybody else at the Masters, finishing in a tie for 12th or better in seven of his past eight starts with six top ten placings. He finished alone in third place 12 months ago for the second year in a row, his third career finish that high. He has won more money ($1. 3 million) and has the lowest scoring average (71. 18) of any player yet to slip on the green jacket.

That's on the credit side. Now for the debit side. Mickelson has never broken 70 in the final round and has beaten par on Sunday in only four of the nine years he has made the cut. Inevitably, he puts a positive spin on the situation.

"I've always thought the Masters would be the best opportunity to win a major", he says. "My record here is better than in the other three majors. The course is well suited to my game in that I'm able to hit driver on all the holes and I have a pretty good feel for these fast greens."

But Mickelson's decision-making is a potentially lethal handicap. Leading golf guru Butch Harmon insists he is "obsessed with distance," and as our graphic above shows, there are plenty of different views on his swing.

"I didn't see that, what magazine was that?" he asks. "I really have stopped worrying about the criticism and thinking about it. The reason is that there are golf swings out on the tour that are unique to each player. Ray Floyd was a great champion but you wouldn't try to emulate his swing. Jack Nicklaus is a wonderful champion as well but his right elbow at the top of his swing isn't what you would try to emulate.

"But those swings work for those guys. And if you change, you change their ability to play well. I equate it to this. If you are trying to reach an end goal, there are many ways to reach it. But if you keep going from one path to another, you're never moving forward. So I've chosen a certain path of my golf swing that I can feel comfortable with. It allows me to play my best and I continue to try and refine it on that same direction on that same path."

The next four days will tell if he can finally make it work when it matters most. If not, he will continue to be reminded about a certain monkey who just won't get off his back.

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