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If this is it, Prez Cup a fitting swan song for Mickelson

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Under cloudy skies with a brisk breeze starting to sweep across Liberty National Golf Club, Phil Mickelson stood to the side of the 17th green and took it all in.

He and Kevin Kisner had just polished off a closely-contested match against Jhonattan Vegas and Emiliano Grillo. Kisner tugged at his partner’s arm, imploring him to turn around for a quick on-camera interview as the players in the next match approached the putting surface. But Mickelson’s attention was elsewhere.

“Yeah,” Mickelson said. “That’s gonna have to wait.”

And with that, he turned away from one camera lens and toward another. He put one arm around his wife, Amy, and a second around his brother-turned caddie, Tim. The trio was flanked by Mickelson’s two youngest children, 15-year-old Sophia and 14-year-old Evan.

After capping an unbeaten team performance in his 12th – and perhaps final – Presidents Cup appearance, Mickelson had earned a brief reprieve from media obligations. It was picture time.

“My kids are at an age where they appreciate these moments now,” Mickelson said. “They couldn’t understand what it meant when they were little. Now that they’re teenagers, for them to share these moments means a lot to me.”

After 23 straight years representing the U.S. in annual team competitions, Mickelson’s record already has plenty of decoration. He entered this week with more Presidents Cup points than any American, and his win with Kisner Saturday was his record 25th match victory – one more than Tiger Woods.

But the growth of his family over his career serves as a more personal marker of just how much time has passed as the 47-year-old inches closer to the twilight of his playing career.

When Mickelson made his Presidents Cup debut at age 24 in 1994, he was the only player on the U.S. roster under age 30. He played that week on a team captained by Hale Irwin, and he paired three times with Tom Lehman.

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He and Amy were also still two years away from tying the knot, and it would be five more years before Mickelson’s “you’re going to be a father” moment with Payne Stewart on the 18th green at Pinehurst. The same man who teed it up as a bachelor in his team debut couldn’t wait to hug his daughter after Kisner holed the winning 7-footer Saturday.

“I think about it more as experiences rather than records,” Mickelson said. “I have a lot of experiences, and those are the things that I really cherish.”

As he stood there next to his family and basked in the glow of another age-defying performance, it seemed fair to wonder whether this week could be his swan song as a player in this emotionally-charged environment. He insists that making the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris remains “a big goal,” but he also hasn’t won a tournament in four years and didn’t sniff qualifying automatically for this year’s team.

Father Time remains undefeated, as the assistant captains on either side of the ledger can attest, and Mickelson’s immediate move toward family photo hour may have tipped his hand.

If this weekend is it, he wants to savor the moment with those he loves the most.

“When they look at me like I’m cool, it means a lot,” Mickelson said, locking eyes with Sophia as his voice wavered a hint of emotion. “You know what I mean. As a dad, when your kids look at you a certain way, it means a lot.”

While his inclusion on this week’s team wasn’t much of a surprise, his ability to contribute was hardly a sure thing. Mickelson struggled for much of the summer, enduring a caddie switch and missed cuts in the season’s final two majors.

But on cue, he seems to bring out his best stuff in team match-play settings, regardless of incoming form. In fact, his record in the last three team competitions – two of which saw him added as a captain’s pick – is now a stout 7-1-3.

This time he took Kisner under his wing as a rookie, and the two combined for a 2-0-1 record. It was an unexpected mix of a California product and a self-described “South Carolina redneck,” but one that oozed confidence from the start.

“Having been able to come down the stretch with him, and to see how well he performs under the gun, is unbelievable,” Kisner said. “I’ll always look back and think about who I played with. Nobody can ever take that from me. I played with a Hall-of-Famer, and we did great together. No matter what happens in my future, that will always be something I look at.”

Kisner is simply the latest player who can attest to the rejuvenating effect team match play has on Mickelson, a lengthy list that includes everyone from Jay Haas to Anthony Kim. The pair offered one of the highlights of the tournament with an impromptu “Three Amigos” dance after Mickelson clinched their Friday fourballs win.

“They’ve been giggling the entire time,” Amy Mickelson said. “Giggles for a week, these two.”

Asked to assess his partner’s performance after seeing it up close and personal for three straight days, Kisner simply shook his head and offered a wry grin.

“If Bones was still caddying, I’d really be spinning. But at least Tim is just like, ‘Whatever,’” Kisner said. “They’re going through ‘Pelz’ and draws, and trying to hit 126 (yards). I’m like, ‘Man, it’s blowing 30 (mph) and it’s 40 degrees. Who knows how far you’re going to hit it?’ Then he hits it to 4 feet, and I can’t say anything about it.”

Such is the magic Mickelson seems to conjure simply by showing up and donning the red, white and blue.

After putting another point on the board, and before embarking on an afternoon as cheerleader and selfie star with Kisner and Rickie Fowler, Mickelson rode the wave of his latest performance and posed with family to commemorate the occasion.

“Maybe towards the end I’ll look back, and I’ll look back at the highlights and the many moments,” Mickelson said. “But right now, I’m just trying to create more.”

He’ll have another chance to do just that during Sunday’s singles session, with the outcome of this Presidents Cup no longer in doubt, and perhaps a few more in the years to come. But should his participation streak fail to reach Year 24, should the shadow of Lady Liberty be the last place he hits a shot for his country, this would certainly serve as a fitting conclusion.