On the way to winning the 90th United States Amateur Championship, and becoming the first left-handed golfer to capture the biggest prize in amateur golf, Phil Mickelson survived close calls in three of his six matches, though not in the final when he defeated collegiate rival and fellow San Diegan Manny Zerman, 5 and 4, at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver.
He was lucky he’ll tell you. In fact, he won’t stop telling you.
“I didn’t have my A-game for a lot of those [early] matches, but I hit some good shots at key times, and I would certainly admit that I had some luck,” Mickelson said, recalling his run. “There were a few rounds I didn't necessarily have my best, and my opponent didn't either, and I was able to win those matches barely. I think you just need a little bit of luck to win the Amateur.”
It helps if you’re also good, and Mickelson, then a 20-year-old Arizona State University All-American, already was plenty good. In fact, the lefty was the favorite after successfully defending his NCAA Division I individual championship earlier in the year.
If there was luck involved, so be it. But the San Diego native, who the following year would win the PGA Tour’s Northern Telecom Open while still an amateur, possessed not only talent, but also a mile-high confidence level.
That he showed on the first hole of the second round of match play. After finishing as medalist with rounds of 71-64—135, the latter score coming at nearby Meridian Golf Club and which set the championship record, Mickelson opened with a 1-up win over 1974 Amateur runner-up John Grace after falling into an early 2-down hole.
Then he met Jeff Thomas, 31, of South Plainfield, N.J., who later won a U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. Thomas took three to reach the green and was stalking a 25-foot par putt while Mickelson had a 4-footer for birdie. Inexplicably, Mickelson conceded Thomas’s par putt and then sank his birdie try to go 1-up. He went on to a 6-and-5 victory.
At the time, Mickelson said he gave Thomas the putt “to put some pressure on myself.” More than 20 years later, he’s a bit more wistful about the gesture.
“I'll never forget the look that he gave me. It was just funny,” Mickelson recalled. “I ended up making a three‑ or four‑foot birdie putt to win the hole. Why did I do that? Well, he took like two minutes to hit the chip shot, and he hit it 40 feet by the hole. Then he started the process again, and I just thought, ‘just pick it up.’ So he did, and I made it, and we went on.”
Mickelson’s flair emerged in the third round, and it also saved him.
He was paired opposite Michael Swingle, of Seattle, and he found himself 1 down through 12 and in trouble off the tee, nearly stymied behind a tree near the 10th fairway. Mickelson extricated himself from the trouble, however, by hooking an 8-iron around the tree and onto the green, where he then sank a 10-footer for a birdie that squared the match. His 2-putt birdie at the par-5 17th hole propelled him into the quarterfinals against fellow Californian Bob May – the same Bob May who in 2000 famously lost a three-hole playoff to Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky.
May put significant pressure on Mickelson by registering three birdies in the first four holes. Mickelson, however, responded with three birdies of his own on the first nine, and he also birdied the two inward par-5 holes, the 11th and 17th, to earn yet another 1-up win.
The key for Mickelson throughout the week was his length advantage off the tee, and he used it without hesitation – no surprise, given his penchant for aggressive golf once he embarked on his pro career – to dominate on the par-5 holes. In fact, Mickelson birdied the par-5 11th in each of his matches.
“I could reach that par 5 and no one else could, and I needed to take advantage of that,” he explained. “I switched to a 45-inch shaft on my driver, which was a big deal, and I could hit it on top of the hillside and go at that green. And where that par 5 came in the round, it worked in my favor.”
Mickelson advanced to the 36-hole final by defeating David Eger, of Fort Meade, Md., 5 and 3. Zerman, a native of South Africa who moved to the U.S. as a teenager, kept his streak alive by finishing his matches before the 18th hole by knocking off New Yorker Tom Scherrer, 4 and 2. Scherrer would finish as the Amateur runner-up two years later at Muirfield Village.
Like most of his previous matches, Mickelson fell behind early, this time with a bogey on the first hole. But he had also been making plenty of birdies to offset his mistakes, and it was no different against Zerman, who was Mickelson’s former teammate at University High and now was his college rival at the University of Arizona.
The left-hander won the next four holes with birdies at Nos. 2, 3, and 5 plus his par was a winner at the fourth. He extended the lead to 4 up after 10 but finished the morning 18 with that 3-up advantage when Zerman won the 17th.
After the lunch break Zerman broke fast. He birdied the first hole and took advantage of a Mickelson miscue at the second to trim Mickelson’s lead to 1 up. He nearly aced the par-3 sixth, winning with a conceded birdie from less than a foot.
But Mickelson kept making birdies, including one at the fifth, a par 5. At the par-3 eighth, Zerman appeared poised to square the match when he pitched in from 40 feet. But Mickelson halved the hole with a 20-foot putt. That turn of events would turn out to be Zerman’s last gasp as he bogeyed the 10th to fall 2 down.
Mickelson would birdie the 11th one more time to nudge his lead back to 3 holes and added another birdie at the 13th for the sufficient buffer he seldom enjoyed in some of his previous matches. A mere par at the 14th ended the proceedings for Mickelson.
Mickelson said he has only visited Cherry Hills once since his victory, but has warm feelings for the course that has hosted three U.S. Opens and a U.S. Women’s Open. He was happy to learn that the U.S. Amateur was returning this year.
“I loved the golf course. I thought it was spectacular,” said Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up. “I think that there is so much history there from Palmer driving the green on 1, to Hogan backing up his wedge on 17 [both in the 1960 U.S. Open won by Palmer]. There's been so much history that took place there that you can't help but feel it. I’m glad that they're having a big tournament there again. I think it’s great for the Amateur to return there.”
Twenty-two years ago, Mickelson added to that history. He became the second player, after Jack Nicklaus in 1961, to win the NCAA title and U.S. Amateur in the same year. (Tiger Woods joined that group in 1996.) The trend of collegiate golfers winning the championship continued; Mickelson was the sixth winner in seven years who was still in school.
As previously mentioned, he was the first lefty to win the Amateur and the second lefty to win any USGA event after Ralph Howe III won the 1988 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
“I just remember some of those things that looking back on it, in my amateur days, some of the things that took place that week … it was a special week,” said Mickelson, whose younger brother, Tim, is an alternate for this year’s Amateur. “To win the U.S. Amateur is such a great feeling and feat because it's really the epitome for an amateur. It's the one major that you shoot for.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.