From The Archive
Phil Mickelson had been the last amateur to win on the PGA Tour. But even then he talked like a pro
Nick Dunlap’s win as an amateur in The American Express, his subsequent tears and his charming admission that he might skip his college homework as a reward has been a refreshing narrative for a pro game grappling with the cold realities of capitalism. It also was an excuse to revisit the last time an amateur won on the PGA Tour. That amateur was Phil Mickelson, who won the Northern Telecom Open in January 1991, and ended up on the cover of Golf Digest a little more than a month later.
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Mickelson was 20, still an undergrad at Arizona State, but also with a U.S. Amateur and two NCAA titles to his name. He was 13 years away from capturing his first major title in the 2004 Masters, and some 30 years from defecting to LIV Golf and perhaps introducing legions of golf fans to his more calculating side.
Yet if you were paying attention even back then, that side was hard to miss.
In the cover story with Golf Digest’s Guy Yocom, titled “Young Man With A Plan,” it’s apparent Mickelson’s career ambitions extended beyond trophies on a shelf. Yocom describes how Mickelson and his advisers, which included his former coach and longtime agent Steve Loy, had already targeted the lefty’s marketing potential, and the steps needed to maximize it. A telling example was Mickelson and Loy sitting down to analyze the tape of his tour win in Tucson to assess his interactions with the crowd.
“I think I did all right,” Mickelson says. “Maybe I had my head down too much. I think you should hold your head up, so people can see your face. Golfers should be entertainers. I don’t think people pay to see a guy hit the ball on the green, make the putt and then walk to the next tee. There’s more to it than that. You have to show a little personality.
“There is a lot more to the profession than just playing golf,” Mickelson continued. “It’s the type of business where you sell yourself as the product. There is a lot of money to be made off the golf course, more than you can earn on it.”
Remember that Mickelson’s breakthrough was a year before Woods made his own amateur debut on tour at age 16 in the 1992 Nissan Open. At that point, Woods was a promising prospect, but it was difficult to envision he would alter the landscape of the game for everyone, Mickelson included. Which is what adds a layer of irony to one quote in particular in the Mickelson profile.
“Phil has the potential to exceed everyone … You can’t put a limit on his potential.”
The speaker was Hughes Norton, who became Woods’ first agent when Tiger turned pro in 1996, and orchestrated Woods’ first $40 million endorsement deal with Nike.