JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – I’ll get to the part about Phil Mickelson taking younger players under his wing and mentoring them during Tuesday practice round matches at big events. I’ll tell you all about the younger players gaining knowledge from a future Hall of Famer while learning about the nuances of certain courses. When hearing about the Tuesday games between Mickelson and his blossoming buddies, though, it’s invariably the first question everyone asks.
Inquiring minds want to know: So, how much are you guys playing for?
“A dollar,” Steve Marino confides. “Sometimes two. Press and make it two. Nothing crazy, just a little something to make it interesting.”
“We don’t really play for anything,” says Jeff Overton. “It’s just a fun, friendly game.”
“Not that much,” Keegan Bradley maintains. “It’s more about what he’s teaching us. That’s invaluable. You couldn’t put a price on it.”
Believe the tongue-in-cheek responses or not, but the impact is still the same. When Mickelson first joined the PGA Tour, he would play matches with the likes of Payne Stewart, Paul Azinger and Ben Crenshaw, learning from the veterans while competing with – and against – them. He’s continued that tradition at many of the year’s important tournaments, teeing it up with up-and-comers and helping with their preparation while also working on his own game.
Just call it “Tuesdays with Lefty.”
“It’s just fun; it’s really fun for me,” Mickelson says. “We have some fun games and quite honestly, it’s not even the stakes. It is very little about that. It has more to do with the smack talk.”
The usual 18-hole match – no Nassau games allowed – pits Mickelson and Overton against Marino and Dustin Johnson, though Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Brendan Steele and Bradley are among those who have also played. While the “smack talk” is prevalent and the competition is cutthroat, it’s about more than just playing a scrimmage before the real action begins.
“It’s fun to get out there and put a little pressure on yourself,” Johnson says. “When you’re out there just playing a practice round, you’ve got no pressure and you’re not really that focused. It’s good to get out on a Tuesday and actually get some focus on and see what you need to work on to get ready for the week.”
“You get out there in practice rounds and you’re not really paying attention, you’re not really grinding,” explains Steele. “It doesn’t really get you prepared. If you’re playing with him out there, you’re going to be paying attention.
“If you can’t putt for a few of your own dollars, how are you going to make one for a million or a major?”
According to all parties involved, Mickelson and Overton played Marino and Johnson to a draw in advance of this week’s PGA Championship. The three first-timers undoubtedly gained some important information, though, from the man who finished one shot out of a playoff the last time this tournament was held at Atlanta Athletic Club a decade ago.
Mickelson isn’t averse to helping the less experienced guys – even if his advice is only doled out after each hole is over.
“He’ll do it after we putt, but he’ll say, ‘The pin’s going to be here’” says Bradley, who played a Tuesday match against Mickelson before last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I was talking to him about some lines off the tee at Firestone – a lot of invaluable stuff that he’s learned over the years, which is great.”
“He went out of his way on almost every green to point out where pins are going to be and where to miss,” recalls Kevin Streelman, who played a match with Mickelson and Fred Couples prior to his first Masters appearance this year. “He showed me different chips and putts that he recommended taking a look at. It was really cool, really impressive that he took time before a huge major to help me out.”
Perhaps that’s why every younger player who has teed it up in a Tuesday match with Mickelson comes away from the experience sounding like his public relations consultant.
“It’s great to be able to play with a guy who’s not only one of the best golfers of all-time, but he’s in his prime, too,” Overton says. “It’s just really cool to have a chance to play with someone like that, especially at the majors.”
“It’s cool to play and pick the brain of someone who has 39 wins,” explains Fowler. “Someone I grew up watching, someone who is as successful as him. It’s just kind of cool of someone to do that. I look forward to someday being in the same situation where I can help guys out.”
“He’s a great guy, really cool, fun guy to hang out with,” Bradley intimates. “Likes to hang out with the boys and joke around. It’s a lot of fun to be able to hang out with one of my idols, for sure.”
There’s no question about the value Mickelson has brought to these other players. Of course, that doesn’t mean beating them is any less sweet.
Asked about getting that post-round prize, the mercurial lefthander flashes his Cheshire cat grin and claims, “It doesn’t matter whose cash it is, it still spends the same.”