The Loop

Phil Mickelson and the thumbs up: An unauthorized history

March 06, 2015

Close your eyes and picture Phil Mickelson. What do you see? You see him flashing that goofy grin and giving a thumbs up, right? Of course you do.

In recent years, the five-time major champion has morphed into a walking, smiling sign of approval -- and PGA Tour fans love it. Instead of apple pie, we should start saying things are as American as a Phil Mickelson thumbs up.

The thumbs-up sign dates back to ancient Rome, where emperors made the signal to convey if they thought a gladiator's life should be spared. But it has patriotic roots in this country. It's believed to have become popular in the U.S. during World War II, when fighter pilots used it as a way of communicating with ground crews that they were ready to take off.

Phil Mickelson Sr. was a navy pilot. That just can't be a coincidence.

Phil Jr. uses the move as a sign of appreciation for the hordes of fans that follow him at every golf tournament. And he uses it a lot. Here's Phil giving a typical thumbs up:


Here's Phil giving the thumbs up while making a creepy face:


Then there's the smiling-in-a-suit thumbs up:


And here are fans giving Phil the thumbs up for giving them the thumbs up:


Mickelson has been called this generation's Arnold Palmer -- and rightfully so. After all, Arnie is the Godfather of the on-course thumbs up.


Palmer raised his thumb so often, he once even made the friendly gesture to Vijay Singh.


But despite Mickelson's upbringing and the high rate at which he flashes that first digit, he hasn't always done it. Sadly, there are no photos of him giving the thumbs up in his crib as a baby or on his way to senior prom. In fact, the first photo we could find of him giving a thumbs up -- and we went through thousands of archive photos -- was this one after winning the 2004 Masters:


That just happened to be his first major championship victory. Another incredible "coincidence," which leads us to the obvious question: Why didn't Phil follow in Arnie's footsteps and go to the thumbs up earlier in his career? Just imagine how many majors he'd have by now!


"Use the (thumb) force," Palmer told a young Mickelson. He eventually listened.

Even though he was a thumbs up late-bloomer, Mickelson picked the move up quickly and became very versatile with it. A natural righty, it makes sense he favored that hand first when trying it out. But he quickly showed a knack with his left hand as well, then advanced to more difficult moves like the raised thumbs up at his next major win, the 2005 PGA Championship:


Then there's the gloved thumbs up:


The thumbs up while holding his wife's hand (Apparently, Amy prefers the point):


The dangerous thumbs up while holding a club in the same hand:


And the even tougher thumbs up while wearing pinstripes:


Remember when Mickelson moaned about the rough at the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont? Well, that didn't keep him from giving the thumbs up as he wrapped his wrist in a bandage -- or from giving the thumbs up later in the week with his injured arm. This guy won't let disappointment or injury keep him from delighting fans with his signature move:


Yep, the thumbs up has become as much of an on-course staple of Mickelson as his magical short game -- and it appears to have provided some major championship magic of its own. Like Palmer before him, Phil has perfected the move and someday, he'll pass the torch thumb to another young golfer. Until then, let's enjoy watching this manual master in action.