NAPA, Calif. – No one does perspective like Phil Mickelson.
Rarely at a loss for words, Lefty offers nuanced outlooks on events that can be hard to see coming. Take his run at history on Thursday at this year's Open Championship, when his birdie putt for the single-round major-championship record of 62 wrapped around the cup at the 18th hole but wouldn't fall.
“It was one of the best rounds that I've played. I was able to take advantage of these conditions, and yet I want to shed a tear right now,” he said in Scotland.
Other times it’s a lemonade-from-lemons deal, like when he assessed his season on Wednesday at the Safeway Open, where he'll make his final start of the year.
On paper, ’16 was anything but sweet for the southpaw. He failed to win on the PGA Tour for the third consecutive season and just the fourth time as a professional. He missed the cut at the Masters and U.S. Open, the two events that truly get his blood pumping, and contended in just a single major - the aforementioned Open, when he lost a historic Sunday duel with Henrik Stenson.
But just before he headed out for his pro-am round at Silverado Resort & Spa, there was a smile that inched across his face when he was asked for his thoughts on the season ahead.
“After five solid days off, it's exciting to start the year,” Mickelson began, a not-so-subtle jab at the wraparound season. “I'm still on an emotional high from the Ryder Cup. It's been such a fun experience to share that with so many guys.”
After 42 Tour victories and five major triumphs, it’s difficult to overstate Mickelson’s emotional investment in last month’s matches, particularly for a player who entered with a 16-19-6 career record before going 2-1-1 at Hazeltine. He had previously been accused, however unfairly, of not caring about the event. That was before he drew a monsoon of criticism in 2014 when he called out the U.S. team’s leadership in the wake of another American loss.
But from that pulpit was born the Ryder Cup task force, which evolved into a committee and a five-point U.S. victory.
In true Phil style, Mickelson explained that while winning was great, it was how the American side arrived at its spirited Sunday celebration that made this year’s Ryder Cup truly special.
“The results happen when you play well and the guys really played well, but I think the reason we were able to play well was we had so many variables eliminated well in advance,” he said. “The vice captains and the captain had such a great gameplan prior to the event that when we got to the tournament week, we were able to focus solely on our game and our preparation.”
Mickelson’s investment in this year’s matches was unparalleled and it had to be. After what happened at Gleneagles, no captain, no player has ever felt the pressure to perform like he did. He admitted as much at Hazeltine and went so far as to refer to himself as a “dumbass” for his comments in the wake of the 2014 defeat.
For those who would dismiss the notion that a single team event, even an event as intense as the Ryder Cup, could make the difference between a pedestrian year and a season to remember, the proof was in Mickelson’s actions.
From inside the game’s most unflattering fishbowl, Mickelson withstood every sling and arrow, embracing the role of lightning rod in what some believe was an attempt to shift pressure away from the rest of the team.
He was unflinching in his belief that the U.S. was on the wrong track in 2014 and unapologetic in his desire to give the Americans the best possible chance to succeed.
“There was so much emotion,” said Steve Loy, Mickelson’s long-time manager. “It means so much more after you’ve been on the beat-up side for so long.”
There is still room for improvement as Mickelson moves into his 26th Tour season, specifically with his driving, which he believes can be improved via biomechanics and more work with his swing coach Andrew Getson.
“When I get to driver, something goes off, my leg action isn't quite right,” Mickelson said. “I have a couple of issues that I've got to address and identifying it is the first part.”
At 46, Mickelson is not ready for anything approaching a farewell tour, not in his day-to-day dealings and certainly not at the Ryder Cup. Asked if he was planning to attend the 2018 matches in France as a player or captain, his answer was quintessential Lefty.
“It's been 22 years since there have been 10 Americans that have been able to beat me so I don't know why it would stop now,” said Mickelson, who has never needed to be a captain’s pick. “I plan on being on the team in France and absolutely one of my goals is to play in France because I've never been on a winning Ryder Cup team over in Europe.”
If nothing else, Mickelson’s performance and passion at Hazeltine proves that he cares about the matches more than most realize. It helps explain why 2016 may not have been Lefty’s most successful season, but it certainly was one of his most memorable.