His tee shot went soaring painfully left on the 72nd hole of the tournament that had escaped him so many times. All Phil Mickelson could do was stare at it helplessly, and desperately hope he caught a break. As luck would have it the ball landed in a spot that gave him a sliver of hope. That hope was, and is, what dooms him more than anything else. True to his nature, Mickelson attempted the risky shot through the trees. He had pulled this kind of shot off so many times. But this time his ball clipped one of the trees he was trying to navigate around. His next shot was just as difficult. And though it escaped the trees it ended up buried in a bunker. He walked off the green with a double bogey and was left wondering, once again, how he had lost the U.S. Open.
All his wife Amy could do was console him in the scoring tent, where he managed to get up the nerve to meet the media. His quip—“I am such an idiot”—was quintessential Phil. It’s why he has endeared himself to so many over his 20+ year career.
I came to golf later in life. Growing up in rural South Carolina limited my sports options to football, basketball, and baseball. Golf was a rich man’s game. It took my late father-in-law to convince me to take up the sport myself, and I quickly became addicted. It was Phil Mickelson, however, who drew me in as a viewer before I ever stepped foot on a course. Underdogs have always enamored me, and Mickelson’s name kept reverberating through the echo chambers of sports media that I consumed as a young man. Inevitably, his name was attached to athletes like Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. Special athletes who just couldn’t win the big one. I began to consume golf on television slowly, and it was the 99 Ryder Cup that sped that consumption up. Mickelson took it to another level.
He Doesn’t Have a Drink Named for Him, However
Phil Mickelson is the modern version of Arnold Palmer: a man who the masses adore and whose charisma shines through at every turn. Phil has been known to spend hours signing autographs, almost always has a smile on his face, and seemingly plays the media like a fiddle. The otherworldly, but flawed, nature of his game is something that keeps the masses glued to his every shot. One minute it’s a car wreck; the next it’s David Copperfield. You truly never know what Phil is going to do next. This makes him both the everyman and the superhero. This is how I like my athletes.
A Modern Captain Ahab As Well
What makes Mickelson’s journey akin to Melville’s tale is not just the inability to capture his white whale, but the way in which that whale has escaped him. At times he has appeared cursed, and other times he has brought that curse upon himself. Phil has lost his white whale through bad luck, unprecedented play from his rivals, his own hubris, and from flat out awful play. Mickelson has won five major championships and has finished second 11 times. Only Jack Nicholas has more second place finishes in majors. Winning all four majors is called the Grand Slam, a feat only five players in the history of golf have completed. Mickelson is a U.S. Open Championship shy of being the sixth player to do so. That victory that is becoming less likely as he approaches 50 years old.
Even Second at Finishing Second
Mickelson has finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times. Each of those runner-up heartbreaks are vivid in my mind. In 1999 Payne Stewart made a 25-foot putt on the last hole to beat him. Stewart, after breaking his heart, famously told Phil, “You are going to love being a father.” Amy Mickelson would birth the couple’s first child the following day. Phil wore a beeper that Sunday and vowed that he would walk off the course to be with his wife if she went into labor. Had the late Stewart missed that putt on Sunday, Mickelson would have been unable to complete the playoff round on Monday. This fact makes that loss hurt less.
In 2002, everyone got boat-raced by Tiger Woods during the first three rounds; and, though Mickelson outplayed Woods in the final round, he still lost by two shots. That victory was never in his grasp. 2004 is where the real heartache begins. Mickelson played out of his mind on the back nine that Sunday and was able to take a one shot lead over Retief Goosen with two holes to play. Phil put his tee shot on Hole 17 in the bunker with a pebble between the sand and the golf ball. A modern rule would have allowed Mickelson to remove the pebble, but no such rule existed in 2004. He ended up double bogeying the hole. Goosen seemingly made every putt that Sunday, including one-putting the last six holes, to hold off Phil and relegate him to his 3rd runner up finish.
The closest Mickelson came to the title was described in the first paragraph above at the 2006 U.S. Open. That loss prompted Mickelson to admit, “I can’t believe I just did that” and then describe himself as an “idiot.” A three-putt in 2009 after tying for the lead derailed that rally, and a very poor final round in 2013 left him with his 6th runner up finish. While frustration is the name of the game for most competitors, it is heartache that marks golf’s championships for Mickelson.
Live From New York
Phil Mickelson will go down as one of the greatest 10 to 15 golfers of all time. While I place him even higher on the list, his place in the pantheon of greats will be forever sealed with a U.S. Open. That is why Lindsey and I made the trek to New York last year to witness this pursuit firsthand. Our trip was primarily an anniversary celebration in the city with trips to restaurants and a Broadway show.
The highlight of the trip for me, however, was our time at Shinnecock Hills on Thursday morning as the U.S. Open got underway. Mickelson’s tee time was around 8:00 a.m., which meant we had to depart our hotel at 4:40 a.m. to have a car service drop us off near the course. A normal 80-minute trip turned into three hours because Southhampton is not designed for so many visitors. Now I understand how George Constanza felt as he took Susan’s parents to the Hamptons. I made it just in time to see Phil exit the practice green and make his way to the opening tee. We (with about half of New York State) followed Mickelson’s group for the next four holes and as many as we could after that.
It was an experience that I’ll never forget; and, even though Phil struggled, it was still a lot of fun watching him scramble and hit shots.
Epitomizing the Gentleman’s Game
I am at my core a realistic (some say pessimistic) person, but I truly believed last year was the year Phil would break through and win the elusive Grand Slam. That optimism made me desperately want to be there and be a part of it. It wasn’t to be, and I’m convinced now that it is never going to happen. It won’t, however, stop me from suspending disbelief every year that June rolls around and the talk starts of the national championship in golf.
Even still, Mickelson’s legacy is sealed with me, and there isn’t another athlete I have enjoyed watching perform more. There is no one who deserves more praise for his on course behavior (save one poor choice last year), off course generosity, and his contributions to the game I have come to love. There are many stories that illustrate this, but one of my favorites comes from 2018.
Mickelson was in contention on Sunday of the WGC Mexico and was looking for his first win in 5 years, a win many pundits predicted would never come as age became an issue. Phil was in the last group with a very young up-and-comer from India, who found his ball lying close to television wires. The young man was confused about whether he could move those wires to play his next shot (he could). He turned to Mickelson who graciously came in and played rules official and let the young man know what he could do and even demonstrated it to him. This was in the midst of Phil desperately trying to win himself; and, though it was a small gesture, it was a microcosm of etiquette he has displayed for his entire career.
I will sometimes go back and watch the final rounds in majors that Mickelson has won. It is fun to know what is going to happen before the shot is even hit. I also can’t help but to go back and watch the heartbreaks as well. They aren’t just in the U.S. Open either. The 2016 British Open is another tough pill to swallow as Mickelson entered the final round trailing by a couple of strokes. Phil shot a 65 in the final round and finished eight shots ahead of third place. Yet, he still finished second as Henrick Stenson played the round of his life and shot a 63, tying the record for final round score in a major. Phil’s play in that Open Championship would have won every other Open Championship in the 146 year history of the event.
There are other examples of terrible luck that Phil has had in majors that make him a sympathetic, likeable figure. Where Tiger Woods has maxed out his potential in winning 15 major championships, Mickelson very well could have 6-7 more to go with the five that he won. And while there is no doubt that Tiger is the greatest golfer of this generation (probably second all time) there is also no doubt that Mickelson is the second greatest golfer of this generation. And his place in the history of the game should be judged by the fact that he played in the same era as Woods.
The Agony of Defeat, The Thrill of Victory
I have enjoyed watching Phil Mickelson play golf as much as I have enjoyed watching any athlete in my lifetime. I marvel at his ability to pull off ridiculous shots to save par as well as his ability to overcome times of great failure. Arguably, his greatest win came a month after his most crushing failure. In 2013 he started the final round of the British Open 5 shots off the lead. He played poorly in that event for most of his career, and he had just come off of losing the lead in the final round of the U.S. Open. It was a loss that he admitted was the toughest to come back from as he was completely devastated.
Yet, there he was a month later with a chance to win another major, and this time he did not fail. He shot a 66 in awful weather conditions, on a day where the leaders (including Woods) failed to break 70. He ended up winning by three, and it is a victory he would describe as his most unlikely. When we left for church that morning he trailed by five. By the time we made it to the car to go home, he had tied for the lead. I remember listening to part of the back 9 on the radio as we raced home that Sunday. My boys and I grew louder with each great shot and holed putt. That was a great sports day.
As the history of golf continues to be written, there is no doubt Mickelson will have a page or two in the annals. His place in entertaining me will have more than a couple of pages. Sports are supposed to be fun, and athletes are nothing more than showmen who help us, for a few hours at a time, enjoy the fallen world we live in. Phil Mickelson’s career has been the epitome of both of those things. My hope is that my boys will be able to follow an athlete that entertains them as much as Phil has entertained me. Maybe it will be someone I can enjoy with them and someone we can follow and cheer for together. That would be more spectacular than a Phil Mickelson flop shot.