For many of us, insight into a celebrity occurs within the narrowest of windows during personal encounters. A smile and autograph can deliver a devotee for life; failure to offer greetings in a cramped elevator may lead to years of antagonism.
As a journalist, the role is often to bridge the gap between those who are universally known and those who universally want to know more. And so we try to provide a sliver of inference and observation that can be cataloged and ingested by the masses, leaving the consumer with a better understanding of the person than was previously available.
I’m certainly not complaining about the structure of the profession, but providing perspective about story subjects isn’t the simplest task.
To wit: Covering professional golf, I’ve written dozens of columns about Phil Mickelson. About courageous 6-irons threaded through thick tree branches and sliced drives that ping the roofs of corporate hospitality tents. About golf bags transporting five wedges or a belly putter or two drivers or no drivers. About playing golf while worrying about the health of his wife and mother; about deciding not to play golf for the very same reason.
I have spent countless hours watching him in the act of competition. I have asked him questions in press conferences and outside scoring trailers, in locker rooms and in parking lots of tournament venues.
And yet, as he is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and I pause to reflect on Mickelson as a person, it strikes me that I don’t know him much better than the fan who’s received a smile and an autograph or one whose acknowledgement was rebuffed in a crowded elevator.
The truth is, I know him about as well as you know the guy in your office who sits three cubicles down. Seems like a nice fellow in the workplace, but without much interaction with him outside of that arena, you can only ascertain that it also extends into his non-business persona.
I do know that Phil has always signed autographs until his hand cramps, win or lose. I know that he smiles and high-fives and pounds knuckles with his legions of fans. I know that he rewards beaned spectators with signed golf gloves containing cash prizes and annually leads the PGA Tour in presenting used golf balls to small children.
I also know that amongst some circles within the game, he’s earned the boastful nickname FIGJAM, of which the final five letters stand for, “I’m Good, Just Ask Me.” I know that his thoughts and opinions are sometimes infiltrated by an agenda, whether the given topic is clubhead grooves or golf course design.
But of course, like any celebrity there is more to Mickelson than meets the public eye. And so when we judge him as a person, when we look at his body of work that represents more than what’s witnessed inside the ropes and tallied on the scorecard, we must attempt to see that which isn’t so visible.
There’s the story about Phil paying college tuition for the daughter of former NFL lineman Conrad Dobler, whose family was financially strapped – not because there was a preexisting relationship, but only, as Dobler once called it, “a random act of kindness.”
There’s the “Start Smart” initiative that he and wife Amy founded years ago, annually inviting some 1,500 underprivileged schoolchildren into a Wal-mart store, buying them clothing and school supplies that they otherwise couldn’t have afforded.
There’s the “Birdies for the Brave” program that Mickelson kick-started with a goal of supporting troops injured during combat by raising money with each under-par score posted in competition – a concept since joined by many of his PGA Tour brethren.
There are undoubtedly many other stories, too, more “random acts of kindness” that will never be reported publicly but have no less of an impact on others.
This isn’t to suggest that Phil Mickelson is a better person or more giving than any of his peers. It’s not a competition. It does, however, help us glean some insight into what one of the newest members of the Hall of Fame is really like off the course, opening that narrow window into his celebrity ever so slightly.
Just last month, Mickelson showed up to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club more than six hours before his opening-round afternoon tee time. He was the only competitor present to watch golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit the ceremonial first tee shots, later justifying his actions by explaining, “They are the Big Three and they have brought the game to where it is.”
It is occasions such as these on which debates are waged in 19th holes and on Internet message boards around the world. Is Phil really this sentimental and considerate? Or is it all just part of an act, his public image the main priority behind his volunteerism?
As a golfer, I know him as a Hall of Fame talent. Off the course, I don’t know him any more than anyone else. What I do know is that nobody consistently interacts with fans and donates to charity and unexpectedly shows up to honor his heroes based on phony premises. Anybody can fake his way through a day or a week or a month, but nobody fakes his way through a lifetime of generosity and conscientiousness.
It’s the biggest reason why everything that I do know about Phil Mickelson leads me to believe he’s not just a Hall of Fame golfer, but also a Hall of Fame person.