Paging Doctor Phil

Dr. Phil is not the most gifted tennis player ever to step onto the court, but he's got three powerful weapons: a strong forehand, a wicked serve and a world-class mouth. As a matter of fact, he probably says 50 words for every stroke he hits. Most of these words are actually quite gracious--"nice shot" and "good serve." Even when he yells "stupid!" he's usually talking to himself. But when the match gets tight, the tongue really goes to work. On a brilliant August afternoon at the exclusive Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, Phil and his doubles partner, Joey Carson, are losing, three games to four. As the teams change sides, Dr. Phil--the sweat running down his moustache and onto his white Nike T shirt--seems to offer his opponents some more encouragement. "You guys pretty much have this one won," he says emphatically. Remember what Yogi Berra said about baseball's being 50 percent physical and 90 percent mental? Phil has just upped his odds. "Yeah, try that reverse psychology," his opponent volleys back. Try and stop him. Needless to say, Dr. Phil and Carson win the match.

Talking and winning. For Phil McGraw, they go together like peanut butter and fried bananas at Graceland. Four years ago, McGraw talked his way onto a spot as a therapist on "Oprah." Now--he is the hottest talk-show commodity to come along since Queen Oprah herself. McGraw debuts next month in "Dr. Phil," a program with so much juice--it's syndicated in an unprecedented 96 percent of the country--that he was able to demand it never be pitted against "Oprah" in the same time period. Part of that clout comes from McGraw's huge "Oprah" audience. Thanks to his appearances every Tuesday, viewership that day averages 24 percent higher than the rest of the week. And Dr. Phil has developed a sizable following of his own. His fans line up by the thousands to hear him give motivational speeches. He's also written three self-help best sellers. None of that, not even the "Oprah" seal of approval, guarantees that "Dr. Phil" will succeed--does anyone even remember Iyanla's last name? (FYI: Vanzant.) But McGraw certainly has major momentum going into his debut. Just last week he was a punch line in "Sex and the City." "When I was starting," recalls Winfrey, "I did 21 cities back to back, dragging my behind to affiliates. Hi, my name is Oprah. He is already so well known it's amazing."

Despite his sly tennis psychology, McGraw is actually famous for his blunt, take-no-prisoners style of therapy. More people have cried with him on "Oprah" than have sobbed in the history of Miss America pageants. "People are used to being coddled," he says. "It's so much easier to tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear." Although he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, McGraw has a way of offering advice that sounds like something you might hear from a good ol' Texas boy, which McGraw, 51, just happens to be. When a woman came on a taping of "Dr. Phil" last week and said she didn't want to have sex with her husband because she was afraid their daughter might barge in, McGraw cut her right off. "Put a cowbell on her! Tell her you need some alone time," he said in his semi-screechy drawl. "We used to tell our kids, 'You'd better not come in here unless your hair's on fire'."

It's not just McGraw's folksy, no-nonsense way of talking that has made him the guru of the moment. At the risk of comparing him to Superman--which his fans happily do--McGraw has a sort of X-ray vision when it comes to analyzing people's problems. He sometimes sounds more like a trial lawyer than a therapist in the way he interrogates people, digging deeper into their lives until they almost confess the answer to their problems. It's not always pretty to watch. He once forced a mother whose children were molested to admit she shared some of the blame for not being vigilant enough. McGraw tends to see the world in black and white--his favorite catchphrase is "you either get it or you don't"--and he doesn't have a lot of patience for people who don't get it, who refuse to take a hard look at their own lives. "I grew up in athletics, where people keep score," says McGraw, who, at a sturdy 6 feet 4, still looks a little like the college linebacker he once was. "It's not about what you tried to do, it's about the results. Life is a full-contact sport, and there's a score up on the board."

Americans have long had a fascination with self-help experts, from Ben Franklin's Poor Richard ("Early to bed... ") to the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale. But in the last few decades, gurus like Marianne Williamson have turned self-help from a stick into a crutch, with the emphasis on "dysfunction," "codependency" and the dreaded "find your inner child"--concepts built on blaming someone else for your troubles. Maybe McGraw's tough take on personal responsibility is what people are demanding now--if President Bush ever wanted a shrink, Dr. Phil would be his man. McGraw hates psychobabble. He's not much for psychoanalysis, either--one of his favorite phrases is "analysis is paralysis." "People are sick of being handled. They're sick of being spun," he says. McGraw is the first to admit there's nothing radical about what he does. "Let me tell you, there ain't nothing new under the sun in human functioning or psychology, and I'm damn sure not reinventing the wheel," he says. "The thing you hear most about me is 'I knew that. That's just common sense'." It may not sound like much, but it's the essence of his success. "He is no bulls--t. He calls it as he sees it, and that's what I love about him," says Peggy Preston, 48. She brought her 19-year-old son, Jeff, to hear McGraw lecture at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles last week--at $75 a ticket. "I am convinced that hearing what Dr. Phil has to say will help him treat women better and not make the same mistakes that have caused me grief. It could change his whole life, actually."

McGraw's can-do attitude comes largely from his father. Joe McGraw supplied oilrig equipment to companies around the country, but by the time he was 40 he was miserable. He decided to chuck his job in Denver and study psychology--an incredible move for an oilman in the '60s. What's more, the financial strain of his being a full-time student forced the whole family--Phil, his two youngest sisters and his parents--to move in with oldest sister Deana and her husband in Oklahoma City. But no one complained. Phil and the rest of his family delivered newspapers to make ends meet. And he got what he might later call a "defining moment" on taking charge of your life. "My dad said, 'Successful people will do what unsuccessful people won't'," Deana says.

Dr. Phil first realized the importance of psychology at--where else?--a football game. He was in junior high school, and his team was playing some guys from the Salvation Army. "We were bad-ass. We had the black jerseys, the black helmets, and here these kids come wearing rolled-up blue jeans and loafers for football shoes," says McGraw. "They beat us like they were clapping for a barn dance. At that point I really got interested in why some people, with all the advantages in the world, don't do well, and those with no advantages can be absolute champions."

The power of positive thinking is a recurring theme in McGraw's life. For his Ph.D. dissertation, he studied how psychology could help relieve the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. He'd helped cure himself once, too--when he was hit in the eye playing football in college and left partially blinded. He made himself an expert on optic-nerve damage and spent hours wearing a patch over his good eye in order to strengthen the damaged one. "Being blind was just an inconvenience to him," says Deana. "That's kind of the way Phil looks at stuff. You can stand around and bellyache, or you can get it done and move on." Even when McGraw made mistakes, he simply reasoned them away. He got married right out of high school. "I was the big football player, and she was the cheerleader. This was just the next thing to do," he says. He quickly discovered the marriage wouldn't work. "We never had a cross word. We just sat down and said, 'Why did we do this?' " says McGraw. He didn't make the same mistake twice. He's been married to his second wife, Robin, for 26 years.

Much as Dr. Phil would hate the idea, Freud would have a field day examining his career path. He followed his father at the University of Tulsa--Dad played football, too--and he ultimately joined his dad's psychology practice in Texas. And then McGraw made a startling discovery: he was a terrible therapist. "I didn't have the patience for it," he says. "People would want to sit there and talk to you for six months, and a lot of times I could figure in the first hour that they just wanted to rent a friend. I'd be sitting there saying, 'You know, here's your problem: you're a jerk'."

McGraw, who had worked with the airlines drawing up psychological profiles of pilots after plane crashes, went into consulting. In 1989 he teamed up with lawyer Gary Dobbs, his next-door neighbor in Wichita Falls, Texas, and cofounded Courtroom Sciences, Inc. CSI (watch out, CBS--McGraw holds the copyright on those initials) does mock trials, jury evaluations and trial preparation for many corporations. It represented ABC in the Food Lion case and Exxon in the Exxon-Valdez trial. McGraw became so well known for his dazzling presentations that in the mid-'90s, Hollywood agents started discussing his own talk show. But he wasn't ready to leave his trial business. "I love the competitiveness of it," he says. "I like a clear outcome. There's a winner and a loser, and they put a number on it. It's great." And then in 1996, CSI was hired to work on a libel case involving mad-cow disease and the Texas beef industry. The defendant was Oprah Winfrey.

McGraw's job was to prepare Winfrey for whatever the cattlemen's lawyers threw at her. But one night just before the trial, she had something of a meltdown. She went to McGraw's hotel room, knocked on the door and cried, "Why is this happening to me?" As McGraw tells the story in his book "Life Strategies," he treated her just the way he treats the whiners he meets on television. "I just took her hand and said, 'Oprah, look at me right now. You'd better wake up, girl, and wake up now. It is really happening. You'd better get over it and get in the game, or these good ole boys are going to hand you your ass on a platter'." Oprah won the case. At her victory "Oprah" show on the day of the verdict, she presented McGraw to her viewers for the first time. "It was Phil who gave myself back to me," she said. A few months later she had him as a guest on her show.

The first broadcast was typical Phil. "He was talking to a prostitute and he said, 'Girl, the first thing you need to do is keep your clothes on.' How can you argue with what is obviously somebody telling you the truth?" says Winfrey. But people did argue. Oprah's producers thought McGraw was too tough. The public reaction was just as negative. "We had e-mails and letters saying, 'Oprah, how dare you let him talk to people like that?' " Winfrey says. "The next time he went on the air, I told people Phil was just doing to --them what he did to me--telling it like it is. Right after the second show, we had huge numbers of people writing in saying, 'Dear Oprah, I want Dr. Phil to tell me like it is'." Before long, the man who had hated being a therapist became the most famous TV therapist in the country.

And he's every bit as good--and tough--on "Dr. Phil" as he was on "Oprah." At a taping for his new show last week, McGraw dealt with the unusual case of Meagan, who complained she was starved for sex, and her husband, Rod, who was tired of being badgered in bed. "Are you some kind of weirdo?" McGraw asked Rod in typically blunt (and typically humorous) Dr. Phil style. Rod tried to wriggle away with what seemed like a foolproof sensitive-male line: "Can't a man just cuddle?" That was all McGraw needed to hear. Anyone from Texas will tell you real men don't just want to cuddle. Rod had broken another of Dr. Phil's cardinal rules: get real. And so the cross-examination began. Wasn't it true that you had several bad relationships before you and Meagan married? Phil asked Rod. Yes. And could it be true that you think those relationships failed because they were based too much on sex? Yes. So isn't it possible that you're avoiding sex with your new wife because you fear it will somehow destroy your marriage? Rod paused, a bit stunned. You could almost see the light bulb go on in his head. "You're good," he said. Without missing a beat, McGraw looked at his cameramen and said, "Did y'all get a close-up of him saying that?"

Not everyone is enamored of McGraw. Some people argue that what he does isn't real therapy. Others still say he's too harsh. "I've watched a number of times where I think people actually felt humiliated and ashamed and embarrassed listening to his take on whatever problems they have," says Ellen McGrath, a former president of the division of media psychology for the American Psychological Association. "People feeling bad about themselves will not lead to change." McGraw admits that he comes on strong, though he doesn't apologize for it. "I'm not for everybody," he says. "There are some people that respond very well to my straightforward, cut-to-the-chase approach, and there are some people who don't." But he's the first to admit that what he does on TV doesn't compare to the kind of guidance a patient receives in an office visit. "Therapy is a completely different model. It's an ongoing relationship," he says. "I think this is education. It's a wake-up call. The real work starts when they leave here."

But will viewers be willing to swallow Dr. Phil's strong medicine five days a week, and without Oprah? The two of them have always had a good cop/bad cop dynamic. "He wasn't as funny as he usually is without Oprah there to bounce off of--I'm scared for him because I want him to do well," says Jenny Purple, who went to a taping of "Dr. Phil" last week. "I always say I'm a member of the Church of Oprah and Dr. Phil is my higher power." Winfrey says she's not worried: "You don't need to do every show where you ram somebody into the wall. He'll strike a balance." Oprah is so confident, she's coproducing McGraw's show. "You can imagine, 17 years of 'Oprah'--the experts, the theories. I've had lots of opportunities to produce," Winfrey says. "Phil is better than anybody I've ever seen."

For his part, McGraw expects to be doing "Dr. Phil" for a long time. He's got a two-year contract and a fancy studio on the Paramount lot, done in a Southwest stone-and-marble motif--and not a single Oprah-esque floral bouquet in sight. "We wanted something that looked more masculine," he says. If McGraw hasn't gone entirely L.A.--"This is like a 16,000-square-foot soundstage, which is Hollywood for 'warehouse'," he says when he walks through the door--he's certainly getting comfortable. He's moved his family--Robin and their sons, Jay, 22, and Jordan, 15--to Beverly Hills. He drives a slick silver Ferrari and plays tennis regularly in Bel-Air. He doesn't seem to have even considered the possibility of not succeeding with "Dr. Phil." "If this doesn't work? I'm not sure what the answer to your question is," he says. "What's the option?" As the man says, life is a contact sport. And Phil McGraw plays to win.