ARDMORE, Pa. – There’s a pretty famous story about Phil Mickelson that, more or less, cuts to the heart of things. When he was 14 years old, living in San Diego, he slipped out of the house on Thanksgiving and asked a neighbor to drive him to the course so he could hit golf balls. He missed Thanksgiving dinner, which upset everyone, especially his mother Mary, who demanded to know just what he was thinking.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone,” Phil said, “but Ben Hogan said that every day you don’t practice is one day longer before you achieve greatness.”
Mary, defeated, looked at her son and said: “Oh, all right then.”
Now, how does this story make you feel? Do you like the kid at the heart of it? Do you find him earnest and resourceful and harmlessly mischievous? Or do you dislike him, think he’s a bit too smart, too glib, do you think that he’s playing a con?
That was almost 30 years ago. And in so many ways, people are still asking the same questions about Phil Mickelson.
For a few years now, I’ve had a little golf hobby: I’ve been trying to figure out why some people really despise Phil Mickelson. As you know, this week Phil Mickelson scrapped his U.S. Open practice so he could fly home to California and be in the audience when his oldest daughter Amanda graduated from the eighth grade.
It fits his profile as a family guy. Mickelson wore a beeper at the 1999 U.S. Open – his wife Amy was due any day – and promised he would leave in the middle of the round if it went off. He took so much time off after Amanda was born that people jokingly asked which one of them had the baby. He once skipped the British Open to spend time with Amy when she was battling cancer.
Then, it’s not just family stuff. He’s done countless charitable things – especially helping children get better education and supporting the military. You might know this one: When he heard the story of former football bad guy Conrad Dobler, who had fallen on hard times after wife was paralyzed, he reached out and paid for their daughter Holli’s college education. Thing is, as someone close to Mickelson says, he does things like that all the time. He just doesn’t like anyone to know.
Then it’s not just family and charity. Every single day on the golf course, he signs autographs for at least 20 minutes. He puts it into his schedule. It rarely stops at 20 minutes. He tips big, he smiles to the crowd, he talks with kids as he walks by and, if you ever want to hear gushing compliments, just walk up to a marshal, any marshal, and ask what they think of Phil Mickelson.
Then, it’s not just family and charity and being a nice guy. Mickelson has always seemed to have priorities straight. This, he will say, comes from his parents. Father Phil Sr. was a fighter pilot who demanded that his son make smart choices and get his education. Mother Mary took a second job to help pay for Phil Jr.’s golf life and she wanted him to embrace life and compete like heck. He graduated from Arizona State before he turned pro. He watched the way Arnold Palmer gave back to his fans and tried to emulate that. He remembers being in the hospital in 2003, when his baby son Evan was struggling to breathe and Amy had a ruptured artery, and he softly prayed and whispered that he would try to make a difference in people’s lives. He has done that.
Not to say that any of this makes Mickelson perfect or anything close – even friends will talk about his wise-guy traits, and his nonfriends on Tour will talk about him being ingratiating and arrogant. A nickname that emerged of him years ago on Tour is FIGJAM, which supposedly stands for “F--- I’m Good, Just Ask Me” (though two players have told me that he has mellowed considerably since the FIGJAM days).
Still, why is it that so many people loathe the guy? I’m not talking about Tiger Woods fans or Rory McIlroy fans who dislike him because he’s the opposition. I’m also not talking about people who like to root against Mickelson in the same way they like to root against the good guy professional wrestlers and NASCAR drivers.
No, there have always been people who deeply and thoroughly dislike Phil Mickelson because, well, they just do. In a quick Twitter poll that simply asked – Phil Mickelson: Love, loathe, don’t care – almost a third of the people said “loathe.”
“Big phony,” one says. “Represents everything that is awful about golf,” says another.
It has been a common theme. In 2006, for instance, GQ Magazine listed the “10 Most Hated Athletes.” This was a list the included Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens and A.J. Pierzynski, who lives to be hated. Phil Mickelson was No. 8 on the list.
But when you read the actual story you find … there was no reason there. There were a couple of anonymous reporters saying that he had no friends on Tour. One questioned Mickelson’s sincerity when he wore that beeper (“Everybody’s saying, ‘Oh God, I want that beeper to go off,’” one anonymous writer told GQ). There was something about the time he criticized Tiger Woods’ equipment, and something else about changing his own equipment just before the 2004 Ryder Cup.
In other words: It was a whole lot of nothing.
And, I have found, that has been a constant theme. A lot of people I know despise Phil Mickelson. But when I ask WHY they despise him, they tend to speak in vague generalities and blurry images. He’s a PHONY, they say. He’s UNCTIOUS, they say. ANNOYING, they say. He’s just PRETENDING to be a nice guy, a family guy, a caring guy. And, when I ask for examples, they might talk about one of his few public missteps (like the time earlier this year he spoke out about taxes) or his out-there hair or the walk he walks or offer a nebulous story about this one time he sort of said something kind of irritating.
More likely, they will just say he should have won more major championships.
Here’s another pretty famous story about Mickelson that cuts to the heart of things. In 2006, he blew the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It was really that simple. He came to the 18th hole needing a par, and then after he hit a driver off a tent, his second shot hit a tree. His third splashed into a bunker. His double bogey lost the tournament.
After it ended, Mickelson did what few have ever done. He went out in front of the fans and publicly apologized for playing the way he did. Then he went in front of the assembled media and emotionally apologized again. “I’m such an idiot,” he said. “I just couldn’t hit a fairway. … I just can’t believe I couldn’t par the last hole.”
Now, how does the story make you feel? Do you like the guy at the heart of it? Do you think him honest and forthright and all too human? Or do you find the whole thing kind of calculated?
Mickelson has never won the U.S. Open, but he has finished second five times. Of course, that’s a record.
In 1999, at Pinehurst, he was simply beaten down the stretch by a whirlwind named Payne Stewart, who one-putted five of the last seven holes to beat Mickelson by a shot.
In 2002, Tiger Woods simply outplayed him at Bethpage Black in New York.
In 2004, at Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson beat himself. He led by a shot going into the 17th, and the moment overwhelmed him. He plunked the ball in the bunker, slashed out to 8 feet, missed the par putt and then missed the comeback bogey putt.
In 2006, at Winged Foot, Mickelson imploded.
In 2009, back at Bethpage Black, Mickelson was deeply distracted because Amy had just been diagnosed with cancer. It would be the last tournament he played for almost two months. And he put on a last-day charge that actually tied him for the lead at one point, but he stumbled a bit down the stretch and finished in a four-way tie for second.
These five tournaments are generally brought up as a package, and for many they define the golfing career of Mickelson – close to great, but not quite great. He has won four major championships, which is more than Greg Norman or Fred Couples or Nick Price. He has won 41 PGA Tour events, which is more than Johnny Miller and Fred Couples put together.
The feeling is that, with his talent, he should have won more. The feeling is that with his talent, he should have held his own against the great Tiger Woods and been more of a rival, a Watson to his Nicklaus, a Frazier to his Ali.
Then again: Take a look at this, since the beginning of 2004:
Woods: Six major championships, 39 PGA Tour victories
Mickelson: Four major championships, 21 PGA Tour victories.
No, it’s not as good. It’s hard to compare yourself with Tiger Woods. But it IS good. It’s Hall of Fame good. People spend so much time talking about Mickelson’s all-too obvious talents – and it is true that his touch and feel and ability to hit the miraculous shot rank with the best who have ever played golf – that they tend to miss how much he’s gotten out of a long swing and inconsistent putter.
They also tend to miss how big a role his preparation and strategizing – this week, he is playing without a driver and with five wedges – and hard work have helped him succeed. Especially hard work. Woods does TV commercials where he is outside hitting golf balls in the rain. Mickelson does TV commercials where he appears from behind a tree to lecture some pure schlub about the ethics of golf. But those are just TV commercials. People who know Mickelson best speak in awe about the effort he puts into preparing for a golf tournament, especially now that he’s about to turn 43.
“He’s just doesn’t make a big show of it,” a friend of his says. “It looks like he just shows up and plays. Nothing could be further from the truth. The guy works ridiculously hard on all aspects of his game. … You’ll see it over the next four or five years. He’s going to be the best old golfer since (Sam) Snead.”
The tax thing was wildly out of character for Mickelson. He came out early this year and griped about how much he was paying in taxes – he claimed it was 62 or 63 percent, which was probably an exaggeration – and hinted that he might have to do something drastic like leave California. The opinion might be his, and high taxes is an issue many people feel strongly about, but it was out of character for him to be so unguarded. He opened the door for people to jump him, which they did.
Mickelson quickly tried to take it back. He said that he had messed up by using his position to be political. He apologized for being insensitive to people who are struggling to find work or are living paycheck to paycheck. He called it one of his dumb, dumb mistakes. But it was out. The people who want to despise Mickelson, well, they had their reason now. This, they could say, is what he’s REALLY like.
Is it what Mickelson is really like? Here’s another version – Mickelson and his wife Amy every year do this event in San Diego called “Start Smart,” where they take more than 1,500 underprivileged kids on a back-to-school shopping spree. One year, they heard from a teacher who talked about a family of three children who had started coming to class every day and were doing very well. They used to come to school sporadically because they had only one pair of shoes to share.
Or this version – Mickelson, on his way to the practice round of the 2005 PGA Championship, saw a young man named David Finn in a wheelchair. He did what he always does; he stopped, said “hello” and gave David a signed glove. Finn followed Mickelson around during the tournament, occasionally earning an acknowledgment or a wave. When Mickelson won, he asked Finn to come on over and have his picture taken with the Wanamaker Trophy. They have been friends since.
Or this version – in Charlotte this year, he stood in the rain signing autographs. And when the 20 minutes were up, he stayed out there and kept signing, and kept signing, and all the way he thanked people for coming up, for staying in the bad weather, for being golf fans. Maybe a cynic would say it was for show. But it was really quite a show.
There’s one more pretty famous story about Phil Mickelson that more or less gets to the heart of things. This week, he left the U.S. Open to go see his daughter Amanda speak at her eighth-grade graduation. She had told him that he did not have to do that, she understood how much the U.S. Open meant – and let’s be honest, it was an EIGHTH GRADE graduation – but he went anyway. He did not want to make a big deal out of it. It was kind of routine, he works on this kind of schedule for corporate outings.
But it was a pretty big deal – leaving the U.S. Open just before tee-off to fly across the country for your daughter. And so, one more time, you ask: Do you like the guy at the heart of the story?
As a father who has attempted similar schedule loop-de-loops for relatively ordinary children’s moments, I was touched by his choice – even if he had a private jet to help. A lot of people felt that way.
Others who note the U.S. Open void in his career record and that time is running out, wondered if he was simply not serious enough about winning. Still others thought it was typical Phil Mickelson and a whole lot of show.
Yes, with Mickelson, it’s never easy. People will feel very differently about him. But I do wonder – does the way any golf fan feels about Phil Mickelson actually say anything about Phil Mickelson? Or is it really about us?