Q&A With Phil Mickelson
The man with three majors, a dinosaur head and a 300-pound meteorite is no dodo
With the 2009 U.S. Open coming to Bethpage Black in June, Phil Mickelson again is thinking about trying to win the national championship he covets on a course he thoroughly enjoys. He's had a few close calls and a few that were not so close, such as last year's Open at Torrey Pines in his back yard of San Diego. On Monday of Open week, he required seven hours of intravenous treatment at a local hospital after a viral infection caused dehydration. Another case of dehydration earlier this year in Miami requiring Saturday-night IVs didn't stop Mickelson from winning for the 36th time in his PGA Tour career, putting him just three wins short of joining Tom Watson and Gene Sarazen in 10th place on the tour's all-time list.
In extensive interviews with Golf Digest, Mickelson, who turns 39 two days before the start of this year's Open, addressed a number of subjects, including New York sports fans, UFOs, criticism from Tiger Woods' caddie, a late collapse in the 2006 Open, business ideas conceived during sleepless nights, players who enjoy busting his chops, and some drastic policy changes he would like the tour to adopt (after a public spat with the commissioner). Oh, and then there's the dinosaur head in Phil's home office.
Golf Digest: Not to get too personal, but what's with the dinosaur head?
Phil Mickelson: That was my birthday present from Amy. Last June. Of the dinosaurs that have been preserved, the No. 1 is Sue, a very famous one at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. A Tyrannosaurus rex. Her head is like five feet long. The one Amy gave me is from Mongolia [paleontologists say it's possibly a Tarbosaurus bataar].
Male or female?
Female, not that I would know by inspecting it or anything. I'm just going by what I was told.
What is yours named?
Haven't named it yet. But it's the coolest thing I've ever gotten. My kids and I sometimes will just sit in my office and talk about what the world was like 68 million years ago. Amanda, our oldest daughter [born the day after the 1999 U.S. Open], wanted to be a paleontologist for a long time. Even before we got the dinosaur head. Our kids are really into that stuff, like outer space.
What is a dinosaur head worth?
I don't know. It was a birthday present. We've had four or five people bid on it, but it's not for sale. Talk about giving something to the man who has everything. I was really surprised, just like I was when Amy gave me the meteorite. That's from Argentina, a crash from the 1930s, I believe. I got that from Amy last Christmas. It weighs about 300 pounds and is the size of a basketball. I also have a small one that friends gave to me. It's about the size of a softball. There are more meteorites around than dinosaurs.
You mentioned outer space. Do you believe in UFOs?
I can't say whether there are "aliens" out there or not, but I was living in Phoenix in 1997 when those lights hovered over Sky Harbor Airport. Everybody saw them. They stayed for an hour. I don't know what they were, but to think that there's no life out there, not necessarily intelligent life, that's not really likely.
On to golf: the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. Although you're from California, you seem to have home games there -- it's as if you were born in Brooklyn.
I love playing in the New York area. People from around there are incredible sports fans. The experience in 2002 at Bethpage was unbelievable, and I didn't even win. And those New York fans were a big part of how well it went.
That's interesting, because the image of New York fans -- perhaps one they enjoy -- is that they're pretty tough on athletes and teams.
I found them funny and entertaining. I remember Hidemichi Tanaka hit a ball over, I want to say, the ninth green. The TV microphone was in his way, so he lifted it. While he was doing that, one guy yelled out, "Hey, Tanaka, how about a little karaoke?"
You also go to New York not to play golf, correct?
Absolutely. We go as a family at least once a year. Whenever we're there, we take the kids [Amanda, Sophia and Evan] to shows, restaurants, museums.
And, of course, you made the rounds after your first Masters victory, in 2004.
Talk shows, stock exchange, the whole works in my green jacket. [Laughs.] I've done a bunch of photo shoots and outings in New York, too, and gone to Yankee Stadium afterward. Also, Madison Square Garden. Not only for the Knicks, but a WNBA game. Donna Orender, the WNBA president, used to work for the PGA Tour, and she's a good friend. We went to the Liberty's locker room, and the ladies on the team signed T-shirts for our two girls. Sophia still wears hers as pajamas.
Were you aware, after what happened to you in the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, where you doubled the last hole, how the air went out of your New York fan club?
No, I was in the scoring tent, doing a little bit of sagging myself.
Doug Sanders was asked how often he thinks about the putt he missed that cost him the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews. He said, "Only every day." How often do you think about Winged Foot?
That's too bad about Doug Sanders. But I think about Winged Foot as often as I think about the 2001 PGA [Mickelson lost to David Toms by one stroke], which is really never, except when it's brought up like this. [Laughs.] I might see a clip of Winged Foot every once in a while.
Do you watch?
Yeah. I don't mind seeing it over again. I don't cover my eyes or anything like that. You learn from your mistakes, and my mistake there wasn't hitting driver off the 18th tee on Sunday. It was the next shot, the 3-iron. All I had to do was cut the 3-iron up by the green and get it up and down, like I'd been doing all day. I didn't hit a lot of fairways that day, if you remember. The hole before that, I was 50 yards in the rough off the tee. No, it was the second shot that cost me. I had a great lie, and all I had to do was cut it around the tree. I only had 190 or so yards to the green. Instead, I just blocked it into the tree. It happens.
So, when people assume you're tormented by moments like that at Winged Foot, they're wrong?
Yes, they're wrong. First of all, there's something about being in that position that's exciting, win or lose. That's why we play. Also, having won three majors before Winged Foot, I think it wasn't as devastating as it might have been. Obviously I want to win a U.S. Open. And I've come close. Now, if I never win a U.S. Open, I'll look back at my career and wish I had, whether it was Pinehurst  or Shinnecock  or Winged Foot or wherever. But I believe that won't be an issue, because I believe I will win an Open. I think I have a great chance at Bethpage. I like it a lot.
Is the U.S. Open any fun?
You guys usually look miserable playing it. No, it's never a fun tournament. It's such a grind. Like I said, it's thrilling to be involved, but I don't know that you would call it fun.
You were pumped for last year's Open at Torrey Pines, where you played as a kid. Were you too pumped?
I might have put a little too much into it. But I putted poorly, like I putted most of last year, and struck the ball very poorly, too. At Winged Foot, I missed fairways with the driver. So, I thought I would try 3-wood off the tee at Torrey Pines, which I did the first two days. I thought if I could get in the fairway maybe 70 percent of the time, I'd have a chance to contend. But I hit less than 50 percent.
You were criticized for taking driver out of your bag for the first two rounds.
And I was criticized for using driver too much at Winged Foot. I don't know which one is right, but it's kind of hard for both to be right. At Winged Foot, I was able to contend and almost win by hitting it in the rough, but far down in the rough. At Torrey Pines, I wasn't able to contend by hitting it short in the rough. I probably would have started with driver last year if I had known I was going to miss so many fairways with the 3-wood.
Then there was the time Saturday at the 13th when you attempted to wedge to the green from down below, only to have the ball roll back to you three times before you took a 9.
It happens to everybody. When I see that on TV again, I laugh. What can you do?