What is Lefty's legacy?
When Phil Mickelson raced across the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in the third round of the 118th U.S. Open and whacked his ball while it was careening down a slope away from the hole, he crossed through the fourth circle of golf hell. Not only did he change the direction of the shot as it was moving, but, it was believed, he had altered the direction of his career narrative. Whatever the artful player did going forward, that unhinged moment when he broke the rules and arrogantly explained that he did so intentionally, all occurring on his 48th birthday, was sure to affix itself permanently to Lefty’s legacy. Or so went the predominant opinion.
Five months later in Las Vegas, as part of a mega-hyped match against Tiger Woods, Mickelson won $9 million. Never in the lead up to the winner-take-all match or during coverage of it or in the postscript was the U.S. Open or the incident mentioned—except by Woods, who taunted his rival when he ruthlessly pointed out that he had never won the national championship. Neither was the L’Affair Shinny a topic of discussion in September at the Ryder Cup in Paris, not even among the tabloids. Nor in August at the PGA Championship in St. Louis.
A Golf Channel analyst recently noted that no player bounces back from adversity better than Phil Mickelson. That was in reference to his disappointments in his career, particularly those six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, six desperate and disparate degrees of separation from claiming the only major title he hasn’t won. But his resiliency is not confined to his abilities with a golf club. His rehabilitation from that brief moment of madness on Long Island, and the cringe-worthy aftermath, took very little time. All he did was step up and face the music at the Scottish Open, holding court with an international reporting contingent.
Mickelson admitted that, “Not only was I not great on the course, I was not great after the round, either.”
The following is a key portion of his exchange with the media:
Q. Do you have any regrets then about what's happened the past month?
PHIL MICKELSON: Oh, sure. I made a big mistake and you know, I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. Yeah, it wasn’t a great moment and I wish I could take it back, but there’s not much I can do about it now other than just try to … act a little better.
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Q. The American golfers always talk about how knowledgeable the British crowd is with respect to golf. With that in mind, are you worried that you may have to win them over again this week and next week?
PHIL MICKELSON: … I don’t know. But the thing about this is throughout my career, 25 years, there have been a lot of times where I have had to be accountable for decisions I did not make. And the reason why this has actually been easier, it was my own fault. Like this was my own fault. So the … backlash is my own fault. So, it’s much easier to deal with.
Q. Do you have to work harder now to try and get your reputation back up to what it was previously then?
PHIL MICKELSON: Maybe. I mean, if you want to focus on the worst moment in a 25-year career. …
And with that, what many considered to be a stumble requiring much time and effort to get up from was essentially over. Lefty was back on his feet, ready to resume the wild 2018 season that was already in progress.
• • •
Phil Mickelson has won 43 times on the PGA Tour, including five majors—three Masters, a PGA Championship and the Open Championship. The last of those, achieved with an epic flourish down the stretch at Muirfield in 2013, came just a few weeks after another devastating loss in the U.S. Open, when he appeared in control of his destiny at Merion but failed to execute while Justin Rose enjoyed a brilliant day.
Capturing the claret jug was the ultimate statement of resiliency. And it looked like it might be his last. For the next four years Mickelson had his moments, but he stopped winning. Granted, he was a victim of bad timing, especially in majors, being outplayed by a hot Rory McIlroy in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, out-putted by Jordan Spieth in the 2015 Masters and outgunned by an inspired Henrik Stenson in a two-man scoring extravaganza in the 2016 Open at Royal Troon.
His 2018 season was shaping up to deliver further helpings of heartburn. At the Safeway Open he finished T-3. Then he rattled off three near misses at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (T-5), AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (T-2) and the Genesis Open (T-6). At Pebble Beach, he was asked what it would take to break through.
“I don’t think it’s going to take much different than the way I played the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Right now, I’m hitting it as well as I have in a long time.”
Sure enough, a few weeks later he captured the WGC-Mexico Championship, shooting 16-under 268 and then beating reigning PGA Tour player of the year Justin Thomas on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
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“This is a very meaningful win,” Mickelson said at the time. “I can’t really put it into words, given the tough times over the last four years, and the struggle to get back here and knowing that I was able to compete at this level but not doing it, and the frustration that that led to. To finally break through and to have this validation means a lot to me.”
And then, as unexpectedly as the victory drought that proceeded it, Mickelson went on to post just one more top-10 finish the rest of the year (in May at the Wells Fargo) and was a non-factor in the majors. The falloff cost him an automatic berth on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, the first time he did not qualify on points going back to his debut in 1995 at Oak Hill. Jim Furyk granted him a captain’s pick, but the left-hander, who had played impressively two years earlier in America’s victory at Hazeltine National, had little left in the tank in Paris. He lost the deciding point to Francesco Molinari in singles by drowning a tee shot at the par-3 16th hole, not exactly the preferred curtain call in what might be his final appearance in the biennial matches.
But this is Phil Mickelson we’re talking about. And didn’t we say he was resilient?
• • •
There is a way to change a conversation by getting people talking and not saying much yourself. Mickelson managed to do this the week of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. That’s when his commercial for apparel company Mizzen+Main dropped—along with a lot of jaws, mostly those belonging to his peers. The cheesy ad featured Mickelson dancing while dodging golf balls on a practice range. The featured move was his version of the worm, which he actually pulled off with a measure of aplomb that his wife, Amy, had promised he could execute.
Frankly, it’s a genius 37-second spot that has received nearly one million hits on YouTube; it also coincided, not so coincidentally with Mickelson opening a Twitter account that ramped up to more than 5,000 followers in the first 30 minutes. The comments section on YouTube is gold. “This ad needs to be preserved in a time capsule and shot into space for other life forms to discover,” wrote one viewer. “I didn’t know I needed this in my life, but here we are,” wrote another. And there was this, too: “The most unexpected commercial I've ever seen. Lefty taking risks as always.”
Mickelson’s fellow players reacted with a mixture of teetering disbelief and nodding respect.
“We’ve all seen it before,” Matt Kuchar said. “We’re just all in shock—all in shock that he actually put it out there for public consumption.”
“Phil’s Phil and we love him for it, and it’s great,” McIlroy said.
“I think it’s fun to laugh at yourself and certainly that’s what I’m doing in this commercial,” Mickelson told reporters in Akron, “because it was a lot of work just to get those moves out of me. I could’ve said no, but what’s the point of that? When you have these moves, you have to show them off.”
Later that month, he reprised another of those dance moves, a high leg kick. He swung his left leg over the cowering head of actor Chris O’Donnell at a party in Boston. O’Donnell has his hands over his eyes, bracing for getting a foot upside the head. Mickelson tweeted the feat. He had joined Twitter a few days earlier and wrote, “High kicking over @chrisodonnell. Why? Because I can!”
This was around the time that details of “The Match” against Woods were starting to become public. And say what you want about the showdown at Shadow Creek—reaction to the final product was largely negative—it got people talking. That is one of Mickelson’s foremost talents.
It could be said that in the final assessment that the incident at Shinnecock simply was of a piece with a myriad of Mickelson moments, from his pitching tryout with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens to throwing Tom Watson under the bus after the 2014 Ryder Cup.
Through it all his game has been consistently brilliant with some sustained stretches of greatness, and he has exhibited a free-wheeling style of golf that, along with his generosity in signing autographs and interacting with fans on the course, has made him wildly popular around the world.
Two achievements are missing from an impressive resume. He never reached No. 1 in the World Ranking, having played most of his best golf in an era when Woods’ excellence was insurmountable. Nevertheless, after his $9 million windfall in Las Vegas, Mickelson celebrated 25 years being ranked among the top 50 in the world. He first broke into the top 50 on Nov. 28, 1993. During that stretch he has been ranked in the top 10 for 774 weeks.
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Then there is the career grand slam. A record of six second-place finishes in the U.S. Open is monumental in its own right, but after falling short at Merion, Mickelson said that without a win in the championship he would look upon all those close calls as an ever-thickening slice of heartache.
The door, however, has not yet closed entirely on his hopes. With the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, a layout where the left-hander has had great success, a last-gasp opportunity, at age 49, presents itself. And although he undoubtedly will have to re-address the proceedings at Shinnecock when he arrives on the Monterey Peninsula, what better way is there to rewrite his U.S. Open story than with a fairy-tale ending.
As for his larger legacy, Mickelson will be remembered as one of the icons of his era, one of the most exciting and popular players in history, and a Hall of Famer.
“For me, he’s one of the greatest players that ever picked up a golf club,” Woods said in a press conference in the run-up to his match against his fellow Californian, with whom for many years he shared a not-so-friendly rivalry. “To go against him for all these years and see what he’s done, he’s done it for so long. He’s been at the elite level for such a long period of time. There is no-fall offs with Phil’s game. The fact that he’s able to win so many golf tournaments for over two decades is a testament to how good he really is. … It’s just amazing in how good and consistent he’s been for such a long period of time.”
Sitting next to Woods, Mickelson was soaking up their newfound mutual respect. “Can we just take a moment,” Mickelson interjected, “and appreciate what a nice thing you just said about me? I don’t ever remember you saying such a nice thing. Thank you.
“Oh, yeah. Just going to enjoy that moment,” he added. “Did anybody get that on film? I would like this sent to me if that’s all right.”
Funny, but as deeply meaningful as those words were from Woods, in the Mickelson 25-year highlight reel, they probably wouldn’t make the cut.