ARDMORE, Pa. – Here on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where a bad boy basketball star once reigned and a Hall of Fame golfer is currently trying to put his name on a city that already contains it, they’ve learned a thing or two about practice. It doesn’t always make perfect, as the old cliché states.
No, sometimes practice is overrated.
Sometimes it takes a backseat to resting an injury, prompting a hoopster in the midst of a playoff run to crow, “We're talking about practice, man. We're not talking about the game. We're talking about practice.'
Sometimes it comes after tending to family matters in the days before a major championship, leaving a linksman to claim, “I didn't need any course prep. I knew how it was going to play with all four different winds. I knew what clubs I was going to hit off each tee. All that stuff already was decided.”
They speak in conflicting tones, but the message is the same. In that way – and a few others, too – it’s clear that one Philadelphia icon and another attempting to become one share some values.
Allen Iverson and Phil Mickelson are kindred spirits.
The idea comes on the heels of Mickelson showing up here fresh off a flight Thursday morning, instantly endearing himself to the locals with a 3-under 67 in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Stick with me on this one, because I know it sounds like I’m straight off a redeye of my own – and not a private charter, either. More like Seat 34E next to a few teething infants.
Upon first glance, Mickelson and Iverson have nothing in common. OK, upon second and third and every other glance thereafter, they have nothing in common, either.
One is a prototypical professional golfer, the guy who’d be picked by Central Casting if they were filling a role for major champion. He’s a family man whose ruthlessly competitive underbelly is disguised by an unthreatening outer shell, a man who is endlessly charitable both on and off the course.
The other is a prototypical streetwise hoopster, the guy who’d be picked by Central Casting if they were filling a role for callous NBA superstar. He’s a complicated man whose ruthlessly competitive underbelly is disguised by a threatening outer shell, a man who is endlessly anti-establishment both on and off the court.
Iverson, who played parts of 12 seasons with the hometown 76ers ending in 2010, was a highlight waiting to happen. He would delight fans with a crossover dribble, showing an uncanny knack to hit the amazing shot, but could just as easily flail on the fundamentals. Sound like anyone? Mickelson is golf’s answer to The Answer, a polarizing figure for his ability to hit clutch shots just as often as he makes boneheaded blunders.
There’s more to the comparison, though, than just competitive skills.
Each man has made a career out of bucking common sentiment in favor of making his own decision. Each has thrived off the criticism, not only failing to care what others think, but reveling in proving them wrong.
Mickelson has employed that mentality throughout his career. He is consistently inconsistent, a player who can miss cuts for a month, then show up and win by six.
Those critics were calling him out this week, too. This is a man who will turn 43 on Sunday, his window to win an elusive U.S. Open title closing with each year. But instead of grinding and practicing at Merion Golf Club during the days leading up to the first round, the five-time runner-up went home to sunny San Diego, opting to get in some work there while also attending his oldest daughter’s eighth grade graduation.
“I got on the plane at 8:00, landed [at] 3:30. Had a few hours sleep. We had a rain delay here, so I went and slept for an hour. I feel great,” Mickelson explained after a four-birdie, one-bogey performance. “I do this about six, ten times a year where I fly back east on a redeye, play some outing and then come home. So it's not out of the ordinary.”
Always a fan favorite, especially in Northeast-based tournaments, Phil’s decision and explanation should win over the hearts of these Philly fans, especially in the wake of his opening-round output.
He’s unconventional, sure, but if the locals can see past the appearance and the tone of his speech, they just might recognize one of their own in the individualism.
Even Mickelson might not see the comparison right away, but he understands the need to sometimes make resolutions that go against the norm. It’s what great players do at times. In certain circumstances, that’s what makes them great.
If Mickelson’s unconventional decision is deemed successful, if it ends in a long-awaited U.S. Open victory here in Philadelphia this week, he’ll finally look like The Answer – in more ways than one.