CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – His eyes were almost alarmingly bloodshot.
You wanted to hand him a bottle of Visine and tell him to go take a nap.
After Wednesday’s late pro-am finish, Phil Mickelson looked like he was out of gas, and the BMW Championship had yet to start, but he was typically gracious waiting around to answer a few reporters’ questions.
Those bloodshot eyes led naturally to a question.
“Phil, just how fatigued are you feeling and does it help you at all coming to a place like Cherry Hills?”
Mickelson sees opportunities like no other player, and this question turned out to be a nice opportunity. Nobody is more clever sending messages than this Hall of Famer, and he shaped a nice little shot at the PGA Tour brass, while paying the proper respect to the home of his 1990 U.S. Amateur title.
“I’m not real high on playing four in a row,” Mickelson said. “I’m just excited to be here. This is the one of all the four [FedEx Cup events] that I wanted to play, Cherry Hills.”
Mickelson said returning to Cherry Hills was “rejuvenating” and was helping get his “energy level up.”
There are two-way misses in golf, and then there’s this, a two-way bull’s-eye, where a dart hits two targets simultaneously.
Mickelson warmed the hearts of Denver, but he also basically dissed the Tour Championship, more than implying that it didn’t matter so much to him this year, not with the Tour making it the anchor leg in a fatiguing four-week run of big events with the Ryder Cup to come two weeks after that.
The Tour Championship is one of the PGA Tour’s flagship events, the FedEx Cup’s grand finale. If the Tour Championship isn’t that important to a player, then you have to infer that neither are these playoffs.
Mickelson’s point was respectfully made, until he withdrew from the BMW Championship in the wee morning hours early Saturday.
All of a sudden, Mickelson isn’t just pooping on the PGA Tour’s doorstep with his message. He’s pooping on Denver’s doorstep with so many fans surely headed out the door this Saturday morning without even knowing Lefty withdrew.
“My primary goal is to rest and prepare for the Ryder Cup,” Mickelson said in a statement released after midnight. “Without a chance to contend at the Tour Championship, the most important thing for me now is to prepare for the Ryder Cup.”
The BMW Championship will get its largest crowds this weekend. Sunday is sold out. With Tiger Woods out with back problems, Mickelson and Rory McIlroy are the big draws.
Yes, Mickelson obviously is running out of gas, as his Friday struggle to a 76 further suggests, but this withdrawal is poorly executed. Now he’s sending all the wrong messages. He’s quitting in the middle of the night.
Here’s the thing that has to be said in taking Mickelson to task this morning. He has earned immense grace over his career, with his devotion to fans, with his long hours signing autographs, with all he has given to his pro-am partners. I once saw him march an entire pro-am gallery to a concession stand at the Deutsche Bank Championship and tell the workers there to give the gallery whatever they wanted to eat. He peeled off a wad of bills and told the clerk to have someone bring the change out to him after every one had eaten. He has been equally generous with media, with long patience even after long, lousy rounds. He is truly a golf treasure.
This withdrawal, though, was a bogey on his card as an ambassador of the game, a mistake. He’ll be forgiven quickly. He’s earned that, but it’s unfortunate one of his toughest years concludes this way.
At 44, Mickelson’s season ends winless for just the third time since he played his first full season in 1993. He won’t make it to the Tour Championship for the first time since the FedEx Cup playoffs began in 2007.
Mickelson is worn out. You can see it beyond the bloodshot eyes. We don’t know how much the psoriatic arthritis hinders his energy levels. We don’t know how much longer this season feels to him because of the back issues and strained oblique he dealt with earlier in the year.
Fatigue is a real factor in this September push for all of the game’s best players.
Sergio Garcia skipped the Deutsche Bank Championship last week and went to the Hamptons with friends to refuel. He’s now atop the leaderboard at the BMW Championship.
“I would love to play all four tournaments on the FedEx Cup, but I knew that it wasn't going to be good for me to start with, I was going to get tired of it,” Garcia said after Friday’s round. “It wasn't going to be good coming into the Ryder Cup.
“It was nice to spend some time with my girlfriend, and some friends, in the Hamptons. We played a little golf. We enjoyed the beach, and we just had a good time.”
Rory McIlroy said he is trying to protect himself from fatigue.
“I have two more weeks to push through,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “I am feeling a little tired, and I'm trying to conserve as much energy as possible.”
Like McIlroy, Rickie Fowler is only 25, but he says fatigue is a factor in this playoff run.
“You don’t push it in your workouts as hard, because you’re trying to stay rested,” Fowler said. “You try to sleep as much as possible. You do a little less on practice days, because it is a long stretch, especially coming off Akron and the PGA Championship. I usually only play two or three weeks in a row, not just because of the physical side, but because of the mental side, because of the focus you need. It’s really tough to go four weeks in a row and be on top of your game.”
Mickelson’s bloodshot eyes said it all, even if he said too much.