PEBBLE BEACH — The Phil Mickelson way continues to win golf tournaments on the PGA Tour. Hit some bombs, attack some flagsticks, hole out a few times from off the green. The methodology is sketchy and can initiate a fair level of anxiety. But it works.
And it worked again on Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Only it was Nick Taylor who made it work. The Canadian journeyman beat Mickelson at his own game—doing more Phil things than Phil—to win by four strokes and register his career second tour title. And he did it right in front of the five-time major champion.
It was at times flashy, at times frazzled, but Taylor’s tour of Pebble Beach Golf Links was fine enough in increasingly gusty conditions to finish off a two-under-par 70 and complete just the second wire-to-wire win in the tournament’s history. His 19-under 268 total was four strokes better than Kevin Streelman, while Mickelson, the defending champion, finished five stroke back after starting the day just one behind.
As expertly as he imitated Mickelson, you’d have thought Taylor had done this kind of thing before. Except that Taylor had posted just 10 top-10 finishes in 159 previous tour starts and hadn’t won anything save for the 2015 Sanderson Farms Championship during his rookie year, when that tournament was the undercard to the World Golf Championship in China.
This time he fought in the main event, getting in the same ring with Mickelson in the day’s final pairing, and he only had two missed cuts and two finishes outside the top 30 in his last four starts to buoy him.
The late Bob Rosburg would have said that a player ranked 229th in the world, and with such a thin résumé, has no shot against Mickelson, coming off a T-3 showing the previous week at the Saudi International. But golf is the ultimate charlatan. It’s more unpredictable than an Iowa caucus recount. Taylor built a five-stroke lead through nine holes, watched it dwindle to two and then he chipped in for birdie on the par-4 15th hole to blunt Mickelson’s rally.
Taylor, 31, a native of Winnipeg, became the first Canadian to capture the Crosby Clambake and halted a streak of American winners that started in 2005—the year Mickelson won wire-to-wire.
“Last couple of years I feel like I’ve been fighting for my card, so things have changed,” Taylor said with a big smile, after adding $1.4 million to his bank account, sewing up a two-year exemption, and now, possibly, planning to sleep under his mailbox in British Columbia until his first Masters invitation arrives.
As for Mickelson, he might share the record for wins at Pebble Beach with five, but for the second time in four years he found out that he can’t overcome, um, Taylor-made precision. In 2016, it was Vaughn Taylor who bested the left-hander by a stroke. Mickelson has finished no worse than Sunday’s third place in four of the last five years at Pebble.
Phil’s issue was hitting bombs. Usually he’d love that, but not on this day, not with some short irons in his hands. He flew over more greens than the blimp. In the freshening breezes, Mickelson, despite his five wins and 12 top-10 finishes in 24 appearances, couldn’t figure out how to counter Pebble’s rebellious streak.
It cost him when Streelman closed with a 68 sneak into second place and keep Mickelson out of the top 50 in the world by one spot. Which means the lefty does not qualifying for the WGC-Mexico Championship in two weeks, an event he won two years ago.
“It’s disappointing certainly to have not won, but I got outplayed,” Mickelson said after carding two-over 74 and a 273 total. “Nick played better than I did. He holed a couple of great shots. That eagle on 6, the putts he made on 4, 5 and 7, and he just really played some great golf.”
A consolation, if you can call it that, is that Mickelson became just the third player in tour history to finish with at least one top-10 finish in 30 consecutive seasons, joining Sam Snead and Ray Floyd, who, respectively, did it 34 and 33 years in a row.
So the Mickelson game worked for Mickelson, too, though more so on Saturday when he holed out or nearly did so from everywhere but downtown Carmel. But Taylor kept doing him one better in the final round. Phil led in strokes gained/around the green for the week, but he was 34th on Sunday, while Taylor was sixth.
The first dagger Taylor threw at Mickelson came at the par-5 sixth when he was bunkered short of the green while Lefty was sizing up a 40-foot eagle putt. From 47 feet, Taylor blasted it up and in for a 3 to actually gain a stroke when Mickelson missed his putt. That completed a three-hole stretch for Taylor of birdie-birdie-eagle. Then he got up and down from the front bunker at No. 7 after sinking a 13-footer.
Taylor was rolling. And then stumbling. And then saving himself at just the right moment at 15. “That was by far the bigger moment. That was obviously massive,” he said.
Not so obvious is that Taylor had felt like he had been playing well for some time before putting all of the pieces together at Pebble. But as he noted, there is such a fine line.
“I knew coming in this week that my game’s been great for almost a year now. Really driving it great,” he added. “And I think my coach, caddie, we have talked about it, really trying to minimize the mistakes that we make that shoot ourselves in the foot and not necessarily execution errors, just kind of maybe more strategy errors. And we did a good job.”
Taylor has competed in just two majors as a professional. His win Sunday gets him into the Masters and PGA Championship. He almost admitted that he was used to fighting for his card and was rather satisfied just keeping his card every year.
“If you told me for 15 years I would finish 110 on the FedEx Cup, I think I would be fine with that,” he said with a shrug. It wasn’t that he didn’t have goals, but he was having trouble taking the first steps towards them. Sunday’s proceedings should help.
“You never know when that one break happens,” he said. “I had to battle for my card the last few years; I think some of those rounds to keep my card helped me today for sure.
“I don’t think it’s going to sink in for quite some time,” he added. “I don’t know if I blocked out the last five hours and just played golf, and you know, now I’m here with winning with a trophy, it’s amazing.”