Greg Hansen: Tucson favorite is top AZ college athlete

2011-08-26T00:01:00Z 2011-08-26T14:16:07Z Greg Hansen: Tucson favorite is top AZ college athleteGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 26, 2011 12:01 am  • 

In celebration of Arizona's centennial, the Star is featuring our picks for the 100 best athletes, moments and teams. Throughout the summer, we have been showcasing our list. Here is the seventh of Greg Hansen's top 10.

Phil Mickelson

Tucsonans long ago forgave Phil Mickelson his Sun Devil sins.

Each time he tugged the Conquistadores championship helmet over his Sun Devil head, in 1991, 1995 and 1996, he triggered an almost unprecedented thaw in UA-ASU relations.

By winning three Tucson Opens, the first as an amateur, he spawned the working theory in this unforgiving sports town that the only good Phoenician was a Phoenician spelled Phil.

"Obviously, this is a special place," he said upon winning the 1996 Tucson Open. "I definitely like it here. I get a lot of fan support."

He became, and remains, in my opinion, the most accomplished college athlete in Arizona history, Sun Devils or Wildcats, any sport, any time.

When Mickelson won the '95 Tucson Open, a crowd estimated to be 65,000 watched the final round at Tucson National. If those figures were accurate, it was the largest gathering ever to see anything in Pima County.

A year later, 24 hours before Super Bowl XXX was played at Sun Devil Stadium, Mickelson won the Phoenix Open before what was then the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in Arizona.

More than 150,000 people funneled into TPC Scottsdale to see Mickelson win his seventh PGA Tour event. At that point, 25 years young, he had become the Greatest Sun Devil Ever.

"It was like playing Mike Ditka and Michael Jordan on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago," said Justin Leonard, who finished second that day. "The way I looked at it, I had the opportunity of ticking off more than 100,000 people."

Even if Mickelson had not gone on to win 39 PGA Tour events, his accomplishments as a Sun Devil were enough to put him at the top of the class in 100 years of Arizona sports.

While at ASU he won the individual NCAA golf championship in 1989, 1990 and 1992. He was a four-time consensus All-American who won 16 individual tournaments (second in history behind Ben Crenshaw). During his college days he won the U.S. Amateur and made the cut in six of seven PGA Tour events, winning in Tucson in January 1991.

He was the Pac-10 Golfer of the Year in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

Playing at TPC Starr Pass in 1991 as a 20-year-old college junior, Mickelson beat the 153 pros in the field by shooting rounds of 65-71-65-71. It wasn't necessarily that he won as much as it was how he won.

During Sunday's final round, Mickelson appeared to implode on the par-5 14th hole. He hit the ball into the desert and had an 8, a snowman in the desert, and dropped three shots off the lead.

Yet he rallied with two birdies and made an 18-foot birdie putt on 18 to beat PGA Tour veterans Bob Tway and Tom Purtzer by a stroke.

"I've never seen anybody come back from something like that," former PGA champion Corey Pavin said that day.

It was a harbinger of the Mickelson that golf fans globally have come to know the last 20 years: He does not play it safe. To Mickelson, the bigger risk, the bigger the reward. He clearly enjoyed the attention, too.

"Phil is like Arnold Palmer in that he doesn't just like to play golf; he likes to play golf when people are there," said Dean Reinmuth, his swing teacher, told Sports Illustrated that year.

Upon winning the 1991 Tucson Open, Mickelson laughed about yielding the $180,000 winner's share because he insisted on finishing his classwork and fulfilling his pledge to play four years for ASU coach Steve Loy.

"I think I have $100 in my pocket," he said after winning the '91 Tucson Open. "That's my whole bank account."

A lot has changed in 20 years, but Mickelson's Arizona legacy hasn't been smudged.

Between the Tucson Open, the Phoenix Open and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Mickelson has played in35 pro events in this state. He has earned $3.4 million, produced five victories and 15 top 10s and is a cumulative 214 under par.

Although he grew up and attended high school in San Diego, Mickelson lived in Tempe and Scottsdale for almost 15 years. He has not missed a Phoenix Open since 1989, his sophomore year at ASU.

Now 41, Mickelson has won the Masters three times and earned more than $62 million in official PGA Tour money.

After the winner's press conference at Starr Pass in '91, the amateur golfer from Tempe nodded when asked if he had blown his cover.

"I ate at Sizzler's last night," he said. "And I don't think anybody recognized me."

Now he is so famous that you almost forget he was a Sun Devil.

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