PEBBLE BEACH — The Morgan silver dollar is worn as smooth as polished marble, which isn’t surprising given its age. Circa 1900. Yeah, it’s 120 years old, and its silver content, just over three-quarters of an ounce, has a melt value of roughly $13.50. In mint condition, the coin is worth about $31.
This coin, which Phil Mickelson cherishes about as much as anything he owns, is not mint. Not even close. The year is barely legible. But it represents warm memories, a singular euphoric moment, and an important piece of his family’s heritage.
Which, rather significantly, is conjoined with Pebble Beach Golf Links, where on Thursday Mickelson begins his title defense in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. A five-time winner here, Mickelson received the coin from his maternal grandfather, Al Santos, in 2003, a few months before he passed away at age 97. His grandfather, not skilled but not afraid to work and sweat, was one of the original caddies at Pebble Beach when it opened in 1919.
Santos had to quit school in the fourth grade and help support the family. He was paid 35 cents a loop. One day he was paid that silver dollar. It’s so smooth now because his grandfather made a habit of rubbing it in his pocket.
As Mickelson explained, “He would reach in and touch it whenever he felt poor, and it made him feel like he had money. And so he often times would go to bed hungry and not eat because he wouldn't spend it. He just wanted to always feel like he had it. And so our family's come a long ways as we look back at him caddieing here for 35 cents a loop to now winning seven-figure checks and having my brother with me and so forth ,and what this great game of golf has given our family for the last couple generations. So we're very appreciative.”
The first time Mickelson used the coin to mark his ball on the greens was at the 2004 Masters. On the 72nd hole, after watching Chris DiMarco miss a putt on a similar line, Mickelson put his ball down, picked up his grandfather’s coin and stroked his 18-foot birdie putt. DiMarco’s ball had hung on the left side. Mickelson’s almost inexplicably tilted right at the very end and tumbled in. He made his famous leap. He finally had won a major, which his grandfather said he would do.
In midair he thought of “Nunu,” which is what he and his siblings called his grandfather. “I jumped in the air, and in that moment, I felt like he nudged it in,” Mickelson said.
When he tees off at 8:22 a.m. PST at Spyglass Hill, Mickelson will carry that coin. He uses it every year at Pebble Beach as a reminder of where he came from. It also has a utilitarian purpose. It is big, measuring 38.1 millimeters in diameter. Since they are playing foursomes this week, with two amateurs and two professionals, Mickelson feels more at ease marking his ball on the greens with the big coin. Easier to see, so no one is likely to step on his line.
This week there will be a lot more ball markers of similar dimensions being thrown down on the greens. In tribute to Mickelson’s five wins at Pebble Beach, including his three-stroke win last year that brought his PGA Tour victory total to 44, the tournament’s host organization, the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, had a silver coin made that has been presented to each of the 156 amateurs in the field.
On one side of the coin is the tournament trophy and the dates of Mickelson’s five wins—1998, 2005, ’07, ’12 and ’19. On the other side is the tournament logo. Steve John, CEO of Monterey Peninsula Foundation, said the coin “pays tribute to Mickelson as well as a legion of caddies who have played a key role in the past 100 years of golf at Pebble Beach.”
“The fact that the tournament made a replica kind of showcasing my five wins in the same size and shape as the Morgan head silver dollar is pretty special,” said Mickelson, 49, who has struggled since his victory, posting just one top-25 finish on the PGA Tour. “I’ll probably carry both because I think they’re kind of cool, and it reminds me that I’ve had some success here. But my grandfather’s coin means a lot to me because it just shows how far we have come as a family.”
Far indeed. The California native has earned more than $90 million in official prize money since turning professional in 1992. But the last year hasn’t been very fruitful. Which surprises the five-time major winner.
“After I won last year, I knew I was going to go out and just crush the rest of the year, and the rest of the year crushed me,” he said. “Kind of reversed it. I did not play well, I didn’t play up to my level of expectation, and it just kind of snowballed and got worse. But this is a different year and I’ve had a great off-season and a lot of good things have happened in the last three, four months and I’m very excited for the year. I know that I didn’t get, the first two weeks didn’t go as planned, but the rest of the year is going to be very good.”
Mickelson missed the cut in his first two starts of the year on the PGA Tour, which he hadn’t done since he was an amateur.
“If you’d have seen how he was hitting it leading into those tournaments, you’d have never believed he’d miss the cut in both,” said Andrew Getson, his swing coach. “Best I’ve seen him swing the club. The only explanation for it is, that’s golf.”
Competing last week in Saudi Arabia, it appeared that further frustration was in the offing. In the pro-am, Mickelson played splendidly, hitting 12 of 14 fairways. Then when it counted the next morning he missed the first fairway with a 2-iron and pumped a drive on the second hole into a lake to make a double bogey.
Focus had been a problem for him, he admitted, for much of last year. And here it appeared that it was going to continue to be an issue. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. The ball started behaving. He found his lost scoring gear. He ended up T-3.
“My inability to kind of control my thoughts,” he said, “was getting the best of me the first few weeks. And I was able to identify the problem and then fix it and start to control my thoughts a little bit better, control my visualization, and I hit a lot of good shots thereafter.”
The top-three finish amid a strong field helped get his world ranking headed back in the right direction. He comes in this week 72nd in the world. It was noteworthy when he fell outside the top 50 in November because he had resided in that stratosphere for a staggering 26 straight years.
Just four months shy of his 50th birthday, he’s still hitting bombs, which he loves to do. “I do,” he reiterated. He’s not the least bit interested in the PGA Tour Champions. He believes he is not finished winning, even with his recent struggles, against the game’s best.
“What I believe, I still need to show,” Mickelson said. “I believe I can play at an extremely high level. I just need to show it. Physically, I’m swinging the club better, more on plane, striking it more solid, hitting the ball longer, swinging the club faster than I have in many, many years. But there’s a lot more to winning than just hitting bombs, and I’m trying to put all those pieces together and I’m enjoying the challenge.”
Confidence goes a long way in golf, perhaps longer in terms of importance than hitting the long ball. When he steps on the course this week, he can’t help but feel confident. And comfortable. If he wins again this week, he'd pass Mark O'Meara for most wins at Pebble.
“This place is about as special as anywhere in golf for me,” he said. “I just feel good here.”
Though he doesn’t need it, that coin in his pocket, worn and weathered, is a reminder of his special connection to the game and to Pebble Beach. “I couldn’t possibly put any kind of a value on this,” Mickelson said, cradling the silver dollar in his palm. “It’s kind of magical.”