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Devil Ball Golf

For Phil Mickelson, the window opens, closes, opens again

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Phil Mickelson's done.

Phil Mickelson's just getting started.

Whatever you want to believe about Phil, he'll give you proof to support it ... and then he'll turn around and give you the exact opposite.

Ten years ago, Mickelson arrived at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club as the very definition of an underachieving phenom: 31 years old without a single major to his credit. He left more humbled and frustrated than ever before, the victim of one of the most exceptional shots in golf history. David Toms' Saturday ace on 15, combined with a key Sunday stay-smart-and-lay-up play, left Mickelson on the outside once again, his 14th top 10 majors finish.

It'd take him another two-plus years to finally capture that first major, at Augusta in 2004. Since then, he's brought home three more, including a win in 2005 at the PGA Championship.

Earlier this summer, he told Charlie Rose that he has plenty of game and fire left for the next phase of his career, and he fully expects to be in the hunt in majors for at least the next five years. That's 20 or so majors, time enough to move up the leaderboard into the ranks of golf immortals on the majors-won list.

Mickelson's already one of history's best golfers, and only the truly snide or golf-ignorant would say his career is defined more by what he hasn't won than what he has. Were it not for the incomparable run of Woods, Mickelson's four majors, combined with dozens of top-10 finishes, would stand as one of the most remarkable achievements of the post-Nicklaus era, a sustained two decades of top-shelf performance.

But because it's Mickelson, because his failures are so spectacular and his successes never good enough to compare with Woods, the questions persist: Is the window closing? Can he close the deal once again? Can he add that fifth major to his resume?

Mickelson himself gave exactly zero answers to these kinds of questions this week. He canceled his planned press conference, possibly because he correctly assumed that many of the questions would focus on this exact topic: how he fell short in 2001, and how much more time he feels he has to nail down another major win.

And in a season that, the British Open excepted, hasn't been a memorable one, he probably felt he'd be better served hanging on the course and making match-play practice-round bets with Dustin Johnson. Who can blame him? The mind is a tricky and untrustworthy tool; why pour sand into its gears?

Mickelson's entire career runs exactly like his golf game: moments of brilliance surrounded by periods of head-scratching misfires. Since his tie for fourth at last year's U.S. Open, he'd gone T48, T12, T27 and T54 heading into this year's British. So what does he do? Comes from nowhere and nearly wins the damn thing, undone by a mental lapse and the unrelenting, once-in-a-lifetime charge of Darren Clarke.

Point being, you really can't count Mickelson out of any tournament at any time before, say, Sunday at 3 p.m. He's always got that ability to start dropping birdies, to start piling up red numbers and charge up the leaderboard. Which is exactly what makes it so frustrating for his fans when he doesn't.

Phil's like a poker player who wants to see the flop on every hand, just to see if he can turn that three-nine off-suit into something miraculous. Sometimes he'll hit the full house, and sometimes he'd be better off just shoveling his chips into the pot.

This weekend, he's coming in under ideal conditions: familiar course, focus elsewhere. Mickelson tends to play best when he's not under the spotlight from his opening tee shot. Let Tiger Woods and Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy and some unknown who'll shoot a 63 take the early round attention; Mickelson will grind away and produce two strong rounds and one ugly one. And come Sunday, he might just put together one of those rounds of short-game genius and flatstick mastery that reminds you why he's among the very best ever to play this game ... or he might duff a short putt and let it all fade into the Georgia haze.

Place your bets. You might bust out, or you might come away rich. Not even Phil knows which way his train's heading.

-Devil Ball Golf is on location at the PGA Championship. Keep up with us via our Facebook page and on Twitter at @jaybusbee. -

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