LOS ANGELES – It has been 20 years since Phil Mickelson first stepped inside the ropes at Riviera, a 17-year-old amateur in awe of the fabled course off Sunset Boulevard, inspired by names like Hogan, Snead and Nelson that were on the trophy.
Lefty finally joined them on Sunday, adding to his impressive collection of PGA Tour titles on the Left Coast.
Mickelson made two clutch putts on the back nine, seized control when Jeff Quinney self-destructed with the putter, and took a relaxing walk up the 18th fairway with a victory he felt was a long time coming.
He closed with a 1-under 70 for a two-shot victory, the 33rd of his career, with 16 of those in California and Arizona.
“The fact I haven’t won this and it has taken me so long to win makes it that much more special,” Mickelson said.
A year ago, Lefty was poised to win in LA until he bogeyed the 18th hole and lost in a playoff against Charles Howell III. This time, he was steady down the stretch as Quinney’s putter changed from a magic wand to a ball-and-chain.
He made four straight putts outside 10 feet, only to make three straight bogeys starting on the 13th hole. The first two came from missing consecutive par putts from seven feet that allowed Mickelson a cushion over the closing holes.
“I just put a little too much pressure on the putter on the back nine,” said Quinney, who made a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that only changed the final score. He closed with a 71.
British Open champion Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald each shot 68 and tied for third, although this was a two-man race from the start, and a one-man celebration over the final two holes.
Mickelson finished at 12-under 272 and earned US$1,116,000.
He might never catch Tiger Woods in the world ranking, PGA Tour victories or in the majors, but for now he has done something the world’s No. 1 player hasn’t – win at Riviera.
Jack Nicklaus never won here, either.
Riviera was Woods’ first PGA Tour event as a 16-year-old. He has not played the last two years.
Mickelson made his PGA Tour debut at Torrey Pines at age 17, then showed up a week later at Riviera. As much as the course impressed him, it also confounded him over the years, and he played there sparingly until returning with a renewed commitment last year.
“I didn’t understand the nuances of this golf course, where you can and can’t hit it,” he said. “And learning those nuances and how to hit the shots into some of these greens has helped me over the years. Last year was when I started to put it together, and I’m fortunate to break through this year.”
His work on the West Coast is not over, even though he has won in every city of regular PGA Tour stops, from ocean courses of Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, soggy La Costa Resort, desert courses in Phoenix, Palm Springs and Tucson, and now Riviera.
Next up is the Accenture Match Play Championship, which he has never won.
The victory came one week after taking an 11 on the 14th hole at Pebble Beach to miss the cut, and two weeks after he lost a playoff toJ.B. Holmes in the FBR Open.
Mickelson said the key to winning Riviera was a change in his putter.
He changed golf balls to a slightly softer cover, and only last week realized that he didn’t recognize the same sound of the ball striking his putter, which caused him to hit harder. He changed the insert in his putter to return the same sound and feel, and it paid off.
Two of his biggest putts came on the back nine.
Quinney had holed a 15-foot putt on No. 8 to close within one shot, then took the lead at the turn with a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 9 and a bogey for Mickelson, whose seven-iron from the top of a bunker sailed well to the right and landed in the 10th fairway.
Mickelson hit driver beyond the 310-yard 10th hole, hit a flop shot to six feet and made the tricky putt to pull even. With a one-shot lead on the par-3 14th, he blasted out of a bunker some seven feet short, while Quinney had a little less than that for par.
Mickelson’s putt was true, Quinney missed on the low side and the margin was two.
“Being able to go first and get that in, I think that made his putt a little more difficult,” Mickelson said.
Quinney held on as long as he could, making a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-5 11th after Lefty had chipped to a foot for birdie. Moments after CBS Sports posted a graphic showing Quinney had gone 214 holes without a three-putt, the streak ended with a bogey at the worst time. That was the start of his undoing.
Mickelson attributed his West Coast success to being eager to play after his long winter break, and competing at tournaments that he grew up watching as a kid. The victory Sunday brought back memories of his first trip to this tournament.
“Then I was trying to make the cut,” Mickelson said. “This week I was trying to win. I like it better now.”