SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When Phil Mickelson rescued par from somewhere right of right at the 10th hole Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, many of the 216,000 fans at TPC Scottsdale erupted in what quite possibly was the loudest ovation I've ever heard at a golf tournament. He was lurking in the wings, figuratively panting and snorting, like an old rodeo bull looking for one more great charge through the arena.
I thought this was going to be the week that Mickelson got off the schneid.
After making birdie on the final two holes to close within two strokes of 54-hole leader Rickie Fowler, Mickelson thought so, too, saying that the tournament where he had won three times, near where he had gone to college, met his wife and used to call home would be the perfect place to end a string of 99 starts without a victory, dating to the 2013 British Open at Muirfield.
How long ago was that? Well, Tiger Woods, who claimed the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in August of that year, has won more recently. It's best not to remind Mickelson of this fact, which reportedly doesn't sit well with him. Who can blame him?
On Sunday, Mickelson, 47, came up short again. A double bogey at the 18th hole dropped him into a share of fifth place, but his chances for his 43rd Tour title seemed over after he stubbed a chip at the 13th and failed to make birdie. Was this just another desert mirage? I'm going to say no.
Mickelson has been written off by many, but there seems to be some gas left in the tank. For that, we should thank Jon Rahm, the 23-year-old wunderkind from Spain who already has reached No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Rahm played at Arizona State, Mickelson’s alma mater. He played there for Tim Mickelson, Phil’s younger brother. Tim worked as Rahm’s manager until he gave up the gig to replace Jim “Bones” Mackay on his brother's bag.
Phil Mickelson and Rahm have developed a relationship that reminds me of Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods at the start of Woods’ career. O'Meara was something of a big brother to Woods, and it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Woods lifted O'Meara to new heights; he won two majors in 1998. For several years now, Mickelson has taken young up-and-comers, such as Keegan Bradley, under his wing and included them in his money games. It keeps Mickelson feeling young and relevant and has made him the unofficial captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Davis Love III, who is known as the godfather of the “Sea Island Mafia” of Tour pros who live in the coastal Georgia community, has benefited from a similar elder-statesman role. In 2015, at age 51, Love won for the 21st time on Tour at the Wyndham Championship.
To hear Mickelson and Rahm talk about each other is to listen to a mutual-admiration society. Last year, as Rahm broke through in San Diego with his maiden Tour title, Mickelson recounted how he shot a 66 at Whisper Rock, a course that Mickelson designed, and Rahm whipped him, 4 and 3. The kid shot 62.
“Let’s just say I will only be his partner from now on,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t been able to beat him.”
Mickelson said this week that it is not if, but when Rahm gets to No. 1, something Mickelson never accomplished. What advice would he give Rahm on dealing with the burden of expectations?
"I don't know," Mickelson said. "It seems like he's doing just fine."
Rahm, a four-time All-American at Arizona State and the first two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award as college golf's top player, was destined for big things, but Mickelson's support likely accelerated the development. Rahm still could learn a thing or two about how to manage his fiery temper. Of Mickelson, Rahm said, "He's always been a great friend and mentor to me. He's helped me out on everything he's been able to help me out on, even in college."
At the WMPO, Mickelson and Rahm were paired together for the first three days, and you could see how motivated Mickelson was to match Rahm's fine play. Mickelson expressed genuine disappointment that Rahm's par putt at 18 on Saturday prevented them from playing alongside each other for a fourth straight day while Rahm gushed about Mickelson's standing in the game and how beloved he is, especially in his former hometown.
"I feel like I'm completely overshadowed by Phil," Rahm said. "Phil is Phil. He's one of the great ones in golf, and especially here. He's been playing here 20-some years in a row, so this is just my third year. We're both Arizona State guys, so I'm going to be kind of right behind him in his shadow. But it's great. We always get a ton of ASU fans here, so any time someone yells, ‘ASU,’ I know it's for both of us."
When told that there were Rahm chants too, he said, "You do. It's just Phil Mickelson is Phil Mickelson. I would cheer for him if I could. It's just how it is."
Then for good measure, he added, "If I were to lose a tournament to somebody, I would probably choose that person to be Phil."
For Mickelson to return to the winner's circle, he will have to improve his driving accuracy. Mickelson ranks outside the top 200 on Tour in that category. He made some positive strides at the WMPO, but not enough to deserve Rahm's over-the-top praise.
“It’s as good as I’ve seen his driving,” Rahm said. “I’ve been joking around a little bit with him throughout the past year about him being a bad driver and me being a good one. And I certainly can’t say much right now because he’s hitting it just as good as I am.”
When told of Rahm's glowing evaluation, Mickelson gave a candid assessment as only he can.
"Well, he's only 23 years old, so it's not like he can remember 15 years ago when I drove it – no, I have worked hard in the off-season, and I'll never be a great driver of the ball, but if I can be average, that would be awesome," Mickelson said.
A sloppy Sunday 72 relegated Rahm to a T-11 finish, two strokes worse than Mickelson. Rahm and Mickelson remind me of another tandem: Vincent Lauria and Eddie Felson from the 1980s movie "The Color of Money." Lauria, played by Tom Cruise, is Felson’s hotshot pool protégé. Felson, an aging hustler, is inspired to make a comeback. Paul Newman won an Oscar for reprising his role as "Fast Eddie" from "The Hustler." We all know how Mickelson loves to gamble. I can't help but think of Mickelson and Rahm when re-watching the final scene of the flick.
Lauria: "What are you going to do when I kick your ass?"
Felson: "Pick myself up and let you kick me again. Just don't put the money in the bank, kid. Because if I don't whip you now, I'm gonna whip you next month in Dallas. ... And if not then, then the month after that, in New Orleans."
Lauria: "Oh, yeah? What makes you so sure?"
Felson: "Hey, I'm back."
Maybe it will be this week at Pebble Beach, or at the Masters, or the Ryder Cup, but anticipation builds for a Rahm-Mickelson clash. Young vs. old, the protege vs. the aging superstar looking for one more score. That would be epic.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak