PGA Championship 2018: In a season of sizzle, Phil Mickelson proves to be more style than substance
ST. LOUIS — Phil Mickelson looked uncomfortable. At first you don’t give it second thought; everyone looks uncomfortable in this weather, which can only be described as a swamp with the thermostat cranked up. No wonder Lewis and Clark launched from St. Louis: hostile tribes, impassable rivers, wild animals and dysentery seem tolerable compared to the Missouri humidity.
But Mickelson’s discomfort was more than mugginess. He appeared deflated, a disposition that only soured when he'd glance toward the leader board and see his standing had not improved. A man known for his spirit and bounce, he plodded his way around Bellerive Saturday morning, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here. He got his wish. The PGA Championship will be in town through the weekend, but Mickelson will be sent packing, missing the cut by miles.
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Professional sports are theater, and few control the stage like Phil Mickelson. He is golf’s greatest showman, a carnival barker inside the ropes and out. The people follow to the march of his baton, spellbound when he waves his wedge like a magic wand. At an age when many golfers fade into irrelevance, Mickelson remains one of the game’s leading performers.
At least, that’s his pitch. Showmen are entertainers, yes, but at their core, they are salesmen, chiefly of themselves.
Mickelson has a commercial that’s gone viral and inspired memes on memes. A made-for-TV series with foe-turned-frenemy Tiger Woods is in the works, one that will back up the Brinks truck for both. Mickelson’s slowly building a golf architecture empire, his latest design called, ahem, "Mickelson National." He has ingrained himself into the Ryder Cup’s DNA to the point his participation in the biennial event is already taken for fact. In that regard, business is a boomin’ for the brand of Phil.
On scoreboards, however, the product has been a bill of goods. In a season where he’s commandeered headlines, Mickelson has been more style than substance.
There was Mexico, yes, his first victory in five years, along with a handful of strong outings on the West Coast swing. Coming off a rough 2017, both professionally and personally, those performances were seen as rejuvenating.
Unfortunately for Phil, that winter revival has come off the tracks. He hasn’t been bad since his victory south of the border. He just hasn’t been good, recording a lone top 10 since March. This is especially true of the majors, with a T-36 at Augusta, T-48 at Shinnecock, a distant T-24 at Carnoustie. They are far from aberration: Mickelson has only one top-15 finish in his last 15 major starts. No offense to Chapultepec, but to someone of Mickelson’s stature, the majors are the only prism in which we view/judge Phil. And through that spectrum, he’s been a non-entity, as was the case again this week at Bellerive.
At one of the tamest venues you’ll find for a major championship, Mickelson labored to a four-over score, 14 shots back of 36-hole leader Gary Woodland and four shots out of the cut. Despite the course’s wide confines, Mickelson hit just 18 fairways. The approaches weren’t much better (T-75 in greens in regulation, 96th in approach) and—contrary to what his silky moves in that Mizzen+Main commercial might convey—his work on the dance floors was downright atrocious, ranking 137th in strokes gained/putting. Mickelson was lucky he shot what he did.
In itself, none of this is a crime. He is 48 years old, an age that serves as purgatory to most pros, where they aren’t old enough for the PGA Tour Champions and disappear from weekend leader boards. That Mickelson is even competing is admirable. But it's his insistence on asserting himself into the proceedings, his play be damned, that's becoming problematic.
The slap heard ‘round the world is what comes to mind. For its subversion to the rules and integrity of the game, sure, but also for Mickelson’s lack of (immediate) contrition. Phil has always been one of great hubris, and—be it defiance or indifference—that he didn’t apologize until days after the fact was telling. Weeks later he would experience another rules run-in, this time at The Greenbrier, a move that made many wonder, “What’s up with this guy?”
There was the much-publicized practice round at Augusta National with Woods, a platform Mickelson, ever the marketer, used to unveil a long-sleeve, button-down shirt. "These dress shirts not only look incredible but are so comfortable and versatile I can play golf in them," Mickelson remarked. Wouldn’t you know, a few weeks later he unveiled his stake in the company.
And then there’s his orchestration about his match-up with Woods. It’s generating buzz, and will likely do gangbusters (particularly if rumors of future extensions to Asian markets are true). Conversely, there’s been a wave of revisionist history in the billing of this "rivalry"—much of it coming from Mickelson himself. For Tiger vs. Phil was not so much a rivalry as a battle of ideology. Mickelson never fought Woods for Player of the Year honors, wasn’t even considered his primary challenger for most of Woods’ prime. It’s worth remembering that when Woods won his 14th major in 2008, Mickelson had just three.
No wonder Mickelson looked tired. Promoting is a full-time gig.
This is not to diminish Mickelson’s prosperous career. The WGC-Mexico was his 43rd career victory, ninth most all-time on the PGA Tour. He has five majors, and more importantly, has cultivated one of the strongest rapports with fans in golf. In many ways, he was an analgesic to Tiger’s guardedness when the game needed it most. He is engaging and cheery with galleries, appears genuinely touched by their love. An attitude and disposition that can serve as example for many of golf’s young guns.
Still, it’s that Mickelson continues to seek approval that causes its share of head-shakes. Following his win at Chapultepec, Mickelson said that, even at his age, he believes he can reach 50 wins. It’s not that Phil thinks he can get 50, it’s that he desperately needs you to think he can get 50. Always be closing, after all.
Following his quick exit at the PGA, Mickelson will not earn an automatic spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup squad. Not that he needs one. The exhibition—and make no mistake, it is an exhibition—has become a spectacle, in every sense of the word. What would that spectacle be without golf’s premier showman?
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