Phil Mickelson: Fans' favourite or just a fraud?
You might think that after over 25 years and now 43 victories of watching Phil Mickelson on tour that I might have worked out where I stand on him.
He is six months older than me so our careers have, in the very loosest/not-at-all sense, coincided.
We all know that that he’s finished second six times in his national Open, the one he still needs to complete a career Grand Slam, and we all remember the shot from the pine straw, if not the subsequent missed putt, en route to winning the 2010 Masters. Hopefully you also know that his middle name is Alfred.
Any other player and I’m pretty settled on my opinion; of the world’s top-20 players there are probably only three players I would actively pull against and there would probably be five – Jordan Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and Marc Leishman – who I would be particularly rooting for.
Otherwise I’m pretty ambivalent; good luck to them if they get the job done, no need for any tears if they don’t.
And then there’s Phil the Thrill who, to his immense credit, is back inside the top 20 and hovering precariously in my mind as to where to place him.
I had thought that Mickelson might have been a busted flush by this point in his career; there have been intermittent sprinkles of stardust since his Open win at Muirfield in 2013, notably the second places at Augusta and then Troon, but no victories. Now, after capturing his third WGC title, he has his eyes set on 50 wins on the PGA Tour.
“Oh, I will get there,” said Mickelson, who is now two behind Walter Hagen for all-time victories. “I don’t know when. Seven more wins and I’ll be there. I don’t have the month or the time, but I will get there.”
Which pretty much sums him up. If you’re a fan those first five words should have you punching the air in excitement, if you’re not you might be reaching for the sick bucket.
Mickelson, it’s safe to say, polarises opinion. In any anonymous poll with his peers the left-hander gets plenty of air time and Tiger is never far away.
In one, 49 per cent of PGA Tour players polled that Mickelson would make a better Ryder Cup captain than Tiger Woods.
In another, your favourite golfer, Mickelson again came out top with 38 per cent of the votes, Tiger was next with 21.
Who do you want to play a practice round with, Phil or Tiger? This time it’s more evenly split, those siding with Mickelson liking the gambling aspect of his practice rounds.
When asked who of the two they would prefer to go to dinner with, all bar one of the 12 in that particular poll went with Mickelson. He would be more fun, more generous, more entertaining.
Similarly Google who is the Most Hated or Most Arrogant or Biggest Fraud on the PGA Tour and Mickelson is once again front and centre.
In plenty of interviews I’ve done I’ve always asked his peers, off the record, what they really think of Mickelson and, again, we get wildly differing opinions.
‘It’s all an act, don’t believe a word of it. He’s a fraud..’
Mickelson has many nicknames but a popular one, to many, is FIGJAM (F*ck, I’m good, just ask me).
Or ‘Who else would stay out there and sign all those autographs? Who else plays the game like Phil does, I’d love to see him win the US Open. Give the guy a break, he’s mellowed..’
The biggest common ground is how much everyone enjoys how he plays the game. On Sunday night he was one moment scrabbling around in some undergrowth and hitting spectators with his recovery shots, the next chasing down Justin Thomas and jostling himself into position for a 12th straight Ryder Cup appearance.
In the play-off he’s goofing around, giving all and sundry the trademark thumbs up or putting his arm around the local dignitaries and generally, depending on your opinion, either loving life or pleasing the sponsors.
One thing that happened earlier that day was Mickelson asked Tyrrell Hatton how he pronounced his first name? The previous day he had shooed away Shubhankar Sharma on the putting green thinking he was media – ‘not right now, after the round’. The following day they would be playing together on the Sunday.
Sky Sports analyst Tony Johnstone posted the Hatton exchange on Twitter and, as you might expect and given that it is Twitter, everybody had an opinion.
No one has ever played the media, PR, public image game better. He gets a very bad rap. Smoke/fire.
— Tony Johnstone (@TonyJohnstone56) March 5, 2018
The Phil fans suggested that it was best to ask Hatton the correct pronunciation rather than spend the next five hours getting it wrong. The rest suggested it was all-out mind games.
While you might let Mickelson away with the Sharma ‘mistake’, the Hatton introduction was filthy. You don’t need to be able to list the Englishman’s CV or follow the European Tour too closely but Hatton was the World No 16 going into the week and has come close various times in events that Mickelson has played in on the PGA Tour. The name Tyrrell Hatton wouldn’t have been new to him.
I once spoke with Phillip Price about his famous Ryder Cup encounter with Mickelson and he mentioned that there were some fruity comments from Mickelson along the lines of ‘is that all he’s got?’ walking off one tee as to how far Price was able to hit it.
All good matchplay stuff, you might say, it’s the Ryder Cup, had it been Seve we’d have all been licking our lips. On one hand we’ve wondered for years how much the Americans care about the competition, now we don’t like it when they’re prepared to play dirty.
The beauty of course was that Price kept his head down, went about his business and then, on the 16th green, came very close to self-combusting when he holed that putt. Having kept his mouth shut all day he couldn’t help himself in his post-putt celebrations and you can be pretty certain that much of that was directed at his superstar opponent.
My sporadic observations of Mickelson are, for two days running, the American going up to Stenson on the putting green moments before heading to the 1st tee and saying ‘let’s have a great one’. No cameras, there were only four of us there, no mind games and no lingering eye contact, just one competitor saying good luck to another.
I’ve watched him chipping in sideways rain with all-weather gloves on both hands at Lytham for an hour when nobody else was on the course and I’ve watched him perform a toe-curling dance in Abu Dhabi where it was impossible to look any more uncomfortable. But there was no huffing and puffing, he was no doubt being paid a boatload of money to be there but he stuck around, spoke to everyone and, that night, attended the pre-tournament party and looked pleased to be there. Which wasn’t the case with a number of the other big-name players, all of who were European.
On the Tuesday of one Open Championship he was asked about the pressures of winning in consecutive weeks having just landed the Scottish Open.
“It’s difficult to win the week before a major and then follow it up winning the major. But then again the last person to do it (cue massive smile), you’re looking at him.”
It was one of the cockiest things I had ever witnessed. Six days later I thought it was one of the coolest as Mickelson secured the Claret Jug at Muirfield.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get it squared up in my head about him, I don’t actually think you can.
What you have got is a player who, without being a gym bunny or health freak, is still dazzling just over two years short of his 50th birthday.
So I’ll look forward to him regaling us all of his driver tweaks and assorted wedges on the eve of the Masters, I’ll enjoy his positivity ahead of the rest of his US Open tilts and I’ll hope that he continues to keep playing our own Open Championship for decades to come.