MEDINAH, Ill. -- Here’s one thing Phil Mickelson has learned over the years: If he is not certain how to answer a question, he pauses. Thinks about it. Sometimes, he will stay quiet for a half minute, a minute even, and he will just ponder the question like he’s looking over a tricky putt. He was not always like that, you know. When Mickelson first hit the golf scene as a 20-year-old prodigy who could make golf balls salsa dance around the cup, there seemed no reason to hesitate. The future was unlimited. Glory awaited. The questions were easy.
Now, even the easy questions … Phil Mickelson can’t help but wonder if there’s something he might miss.
“Can you talk about your relationship with [Ryder Cup Captain] Davis Love?” one reporter asks him.
Mickelson pauses. He stares straight ahead, but he’s looking at nothing. He's thinking. He’s forming the words. This is an easy question -- “I always looked up to Davis before even I came on tour,” he eventually says -- but this is the point. There are no easy questions. Not anymore.
Phil Mickelson is 42 years old now, and his career has been fabulous, amazing … but it has not been unlimited. He won three Masters. And he finished runner-up at five U.S. Opens. He won an astonishing $67 million on tour. And he was never No. 1 in the world. Here, near Chicago, he’s about to play in his ninth consecutive Ryder Cup. That’s something that no American player -- not Nicklaus, not Watson, not Hogan and not Snead -- has accomplished. But that cannot be mentioned without also saying that his 17 losses (11-17-6 is his record) is the most of any American.
In other words, it has been complicated. All of it. I’ve long been amazed by the divergent opinions that have developed about Mickelson over the years. It seems to me that he has been the most visible “good guy” in golf since Arnold Palmer. I honestly don’t see how you cannot like him. He is always signing autographs, giving golf balls to kids, smiling through interviews, tipping his hat to the crowd. Except for a few moments of self-doubt through the years, he has played daring golf, the kind that is the most fun to watch -- he almost invariably goes for the bold shot, the green in two, the shot over the water, the risky play out of the sand. He will try for the one-in-10 flop shot when just about anyone else would play it safe. All of these things would seem to make him the most popular player of his generation.
And he HAS been popular, extremely popular, but there has always been a large group of Mickelson doubters and critics too, people who find his good-guy act to be fake and his fearless play to be lacking substance. There have always been those people who believe his story is not about what he has achieved but how he has underachieved. “Phil Mickelson has more talent than Tiger Woods,” a golfer told me once 10 or so years ago. He went on to say that Woods simply has more will and a better understanding of how to win.
I actually didn’t buy that then, and I don’t buy it now. Mickelson’s game has always been more elegant, than effective; more awesome than practical. The way to win a lot in golf, it seems to me, is the Tiger Woods way, the Jack Nicklaus way, by always playing the smart shot, by pounding home par putts, by taking a lead and then making the others come and get you. Mickelson has tried, through the years, to play some of that golf. But, it has never fit him.
Here’s one way to look at it: Mickelson hits the ball a long way, even now. He’s always been one of the longest drivers on tour. But in a long career he never did figure out a way to drive the ball straight for very long. Ever. His PGA Tour ranking in driving accuracy:
I put all those numbers up there so you could see just how consistently inconsistent Phil Mickelson has been at driving golf balls. It matches his persona. His swing is a thing of wonder … but it has never been tight or locked down. When he drives the ball well, he’s pretty close to unbeatable -- in those weeks, yes, he’s every bit of Tiger Woods equal. But those weeks haven’t happened very much. He has spent most of his career walking the tightrope, winning from the rough, from the sand, from the fringe. He is so good at escaping, at flopping, at getting hot with the putter that he has won 40 times on the PGA Tour, and he has won four major championships, and he has won a dozen times around the world.
Playing that close to the edge leads to a lot of heartbreak too. Mickelson has had more than his share.
How has it affected him? Off the course, he’s a lot more cautious now. Well, he’s a lot older. His wife, Amy, went through a scary battle with breast cancer. His children, so little and cute when they first appeared on camera, are growing up fast -- his oldest, Amanda, is in middle school. He is much more guarded. He rarely sits down for an interview. He thinks carefully about what he’s going to say and how it might be perceived. At the end of his press conference, there were two questions trying to get him to say something derisive (or at least teasing) about Rory McIlroy or Ian Poulter. Mickelson declined, but as he walked out he did say to the questioners: “Nice try, though.”
On the course? There, he hasn’t changed much at all. Oh, he’s showing his age … that’s inevitable. Mickelson says he has a lot of great golf left, and he might be right. But the end is closer than the beginning. Mickelson turns 43 next year, and that’s been a finish line for most of the great ones. Nicklaus won only one major after 43. Player, Watson, Palmer, Hogan, Snead, Trevino … none of them won after 43.
Mickelson still does wonders, though, still hits the shots that leaves drops jaws, still puts together weeks where nobody in the world -- not even Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy or one of the dozen or so talented young players out there -- can touch him. He’s still the guy who smiles and tips his cap and goes for the great shot just about every time.
And so, in many ways, this Ryder Cup feels like it’s Mickelson's as much as it is McIlroy’s or Woods'. Maybe more. You probably know that when the Ryder Cup is in Europe, the European captain likes to set up the course with heavy rough and narrow fairways (and high winds, if they can get it) because they believe players from Europe can grind better than the Americans can. So, U.S. captain Davis Love III went with precisely the opposite approach. Medinah has been purposely set up with wider fairways, light rough and big chances -- it will give up birdies to the golfers who have the nerve and guts to go get them.
Well, getting birdies … that’s Phil Mickelson’s game. And he does sound giddy for the week -- he used “love” nine times in his press conference, with only one of those references for Davis Love, and he used “fun” 10 times and “funnest” an 11th. He talked happily about how he and Tiger Woods have ruled the table tennis table. When a reporter asked him what ping-pong has to do with making pressure putts, for once, Mickelson did not hesitate even for a second. He did not have to be cautious with this answer. It gets to the heart of his game and life.
“Mojo!” he all but shouted. “You’ve got to have momentum! You’ve got to feel it!”