With Phil Mickelson, it's always an adventure
It’s become an old saw: What will Phil do next? Turns out, to the surprise of many, it probably won’t be play in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, as Mickelson instead plans to attend his daughter’s high school graduation in San Diego this Thursday. But, on the remote chance that a weather delay might allow him to private jet his way to Wisconsin in time to make his first-round afternoon tee time, he still might. Once again, we wonder what Phil will do.
Mickelson’s ongoing adventures—especially in the championship where he has finished second six times but never won—bring to mind episodes from my history with him, which goes back to 1988, when he was an incoming freshman at Arizona State. In the early years, especially, we worked on a lot of articles for Golf Digest together, and in 2009 I helped put together his book, Secrets of the Short Game. The relationship has waned as Phil has lost some of his zest for magazine work, but to this point he has provided me with plenty of memories and a few metaphors for all those runner-up finishes.
Early in the week at the 2004 Doral Open, Mickelson and Johnny Miller were walking together following a business meeting with Ford, the car company at the time sponsoring both players. Small talk quickly devolved into needling, something both are expert at and prone to do, when Phil took it to another level.
“I could probably kick your butt,” Phil said. “I know karate and kung fu. I’m stronger than you.”
“I don’t know if you’re that strong,” Miller said. “You want to arm wrestle and see how strong you are?”
Phil accepted. The two men found a small table and took places opposite one another. Phil put his left arm on the table and invited Miller to take hold. It was a bad move by Phil because Miller is left-handed and had also arm-wrestled a lot as a kid growing up in San Francisco. It was sort of a pasttime there. In short order—Miller guesses it was one second—he slammed Phil’s arm to the table. Phil, stunned, asked for a do-over. Miller obliged, and in another second pinned Mickelson again.
He now demanded they switch hands. Miller won again, this time even more quickly, as if to make a point. “I still think I could kick your butt,” Phil fumed. “I know karate.”
Miller passed along to me this story at the end of 2004, and I recall him telling it in a non-Phil context—something about how Craig Stadler, who had five wins on the senior tour that year, was still a powerful guy at age 51. But the tale struck me as analogous to what happened to Phil a few months earlier at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Seeking his first U.S. Open title in his 13th try as a pro, Phil birdied the 13th, 15th and 16th holes in the final round to take a one-stroke lead over Retief Goosen. You could see him feeling his oats as he came to the tee on the par-3 17th. There, Phil challenged venerable old Shinnecock the way he’d challenged venerable old Miller to lock wrists with him. And Phil promptly got slammed, hitting into the right greenside bunker and making a quick double bogey. Within minutes Phil was gone, a runner-up to Goosen by one.
Mickelson’s near misses at the U.S. Open aren’t hard to explain. There’s no curse, just an exasperating roll call of crucial missteps with the putter (Pinehurst 1999, Bethpage 2009), stalled charges (Bethpage 2002), terrible shots hit at the worst time (Shinnecock Hills 2004, Winged Foot 2006) and at least one poor Sunday start that put him on his heels early (Merion 2013). Save for his 72nd-hole, double-bogey disaster at Winged Foot, where he lost by one, his misses were never the result of a collapse.
Inevitably, there were comparisons to Tiger Woods, often using Woods’ strongest competitive qualities—focus, heart and mental toughness—as the criteria. And the resulting analysis could be cruel.
But the criticisms are suspect. It’s clear that aspects of Phil’s play that have held him back at the U.S. Open were virtues in other arenas. Take the putt for par at the 17th he needed on Sunday at Shinnecock, which scooted a good six feet past and led to a dreadful double. Sure he hit it too hard. But as his caddie, Jim Mackay, has pointed out, “So many times at Augusta I’ve watched Phil have a four-foot downhill putt, the read ball-inside-the-edge, the kind of putt you know will go 10 feet past if he misses. Time after time I’ve watched Phil hit it so hard he took all the break out of it and crashed into the back of the hole. Only great players have the nerve and ability to do that.” It’s hard to argue with three Masters titles.
Second, Phil’s way of going—the aggressive putting style, trying the risky flop from tall rough or his sometimes fatal tendency to smash driver when a 3-wood or 2-iron would do just fine—is his DNA. The times he relented and tried to alter his playing style or technique—shortening and tightening his driver swing under first Rick Smith and then Butch Harmon, from 2004 to 2015 is a good example—were like giving a child nasty-tasting medicine. Phil swallowed it because he knew it was good for him, but he also wanted to spit it out.
His close calls and stumbles in the U.S. Open have always brought to mind episodes from my early history with him, where he’s provided me with plenty of memories and a few metaphors for all those runner-up finishes.
Gainey Ranch, Scottsdale, Ariz., fall 1992. Phil, who had just turned pro, bought a two-bedroom condo in the gated community there. It was nice but sparsely furnished, save for a huge TV that consumed too much of the small living room. I stayed with him a couple of days. One morning, we talked while Phil stood barefoot on the bare marble floor and I sat on the couch taking notes. As he spoke he absently nipped balls off the floor with right-hand-only swings, using his left-handed Ping L-wedge. Each ball popped in the air almost vertically before he reached out to catch them with his left hand. He did this maybe 20 times in a row without missing, one of those amazing skill displays you never see. It was inevitable that he skull one, which he did eventually. At that point I asked to see the wedge. The “L” on the sole was almost completely worn off, the grooves on the sweet spot gone altogether. To do that with an old Ping wedge, its cast metal almost impervious to wear, must have require tens of thousands of strikes. Later, in his garage, he showed me another L-wedge that was as worn as the first.
The perception of Phil as a soft, Southern California pretty boy comes to mind when I watch replays of Pinehurst in 1999. He was married and expecting his first child the Sunday that Payne Stewart beat him, which made Phil—who famously carried a beeper to alert him if Amy was about to go into labor—a slightly more sympathetic figure. But the image that some people have of Phil as pampered and upper-middle-class image was wrong. I think of those worn-out L-wedges and know that beneath the gabby cool is a grinding longshoreman who put in a lot of overtime. In those days, if you came out to watch Phil when he disappeared to go practice, you’d best bring a book, because he’d hit balls until his eyes were bloodshot, his skin blotchy red, his voice a Death Valley croak.
Desert Mountain, North Scottsdale, spring 1988. After a photo shoot, Phil offered me a ride back to the clubhouse. Before I got into the passenger seat of the motorized cart, Phil said, “Wait.” He lifted the seat of the cart and removed the governor from the engine. “OK, get in. Hold on.” He floored the gas pedal and the cart moved like something in “Smokey and the Bandit.” He screamed toward grass-covered moguls, trying to get the cart airborne. “Fun, huh?” he said as I white-knuckled the rail. Through gritted teeth I said yes, but meant no.
Phil did some crazy things. After he turned pro and upgraded from a beat-up Honda Civic to a shiny new BMW, he roared into a party thrown by bunch of his ASU buddies, intending to slide the car sideways against the curb. He was going too fast, and instead of making a grand entrance, he wound up watching forlornly as the car was towed, both rims broken. Later, he jumped off a mini-tramp and tried to dunk at a Phoenix Suns game. Another time he intentionally stalled a plane he was piloting and took it into a nosedive with his wife, Amy, then his fiancé, in the passenger seat.
When he driver off the 18th tee at Winged Foot, those stories came to my mind. It was runner-up finish No. 4, and the one he most beats himself up over.
Troon Country Club, Scottsdale, fall 1988. Steve Loy, now Mickelson’s manager but then the men’s golf coach at Arizona State, tells me he’s recruited a kid I’ve got to see. He sends Phil out to Troon to play golf with me. His first words, after introducing himself: “So what’s the bet?” We kept it light, a $2 nassau. I shot 38 on the front nine and, getting four shots, still lost three ways. We adjusted on the back and when it was over I owed him only $4. After a post-round visit we headed to the parking lot. As I approached my car, I looked back and saw Phil standing 20 feet behind me. I smiled and kept walking. This happened several times, him stopping when I stopped. I felt like a deer being stalked by a coyote. When I reached my car there he still was, 20 feet away.
“What is it, Phil?” I asked.
“I’m really sorry, but I don’t think you paid me my $4,” he said. “I could really use a burger on the way home.” I’d forgotten to settle up. I gave the kid his money.
In 2013 at Merion, Mickelson held the 54-hole lead by a stroke but got off to a horrible start on Sunday, double bogeying the third and fifth holes to trail by two. An eagle at the 10th brought him back into a tie, but a poor finish—he bogeyed three of the last six holes—left him two back of Justin Rose at the end. Two doubles in the first five holes would be the end of almost everybody. But Phil wouldn’t go away.
Even if Phil doesn’t show up at Erin Hills, even though he turns 47 on Friday of championship week, he isn’t ready to go away, especially in the U.S. Open.
I hope the kid gets his money.
Dave Martin/AP Photo