Twelve months ago Phil Mickelson was embroiled in a 'cheat' storm at the US Open, but at Pebble Beach he's more popular than ever. Steve Carroll analyses why he's the master of working a crowd
We’re wedged in like hens in a battery cage – closeted around the ball that’s trampled into the rough on the side of the 13th fairway at Pebble Beach. Phil Mickelson troops towards our position, his jaw going 100mph on the gum that Tiger Woods has recently discovered is the key to concentration.
There are about 100 of us fixed in this spot – in the way spectators always are when there’s any hint a player might leave the closeted sanctuary of the ropes.
Lefty’s been a figure of concentration, his vision locked on his Callaway ball and the path towards the green.
As the five-time major champion reaches us, though, the expression changes. Suddenly the features erupt into a huge grin.
The weirdest thing happens. Like we’re locked in a trance, to a person everyone chimes in unison.
It’s a chorus – in the way a flock responds to a priest at the end of a prayer.
This is Phil’s church and we are the willing congregation.
I find myself an eager participant and am amazed at how far this has all turned around in 12 months.
I know we’re willing to forgive our idols almost anything – the incredible visual response that followed Woods’ victories at the Tour Championship and the Masters told us that.
But, almost a year to the day after Mickelson engaged in one of the most cynical rules breaches I’ve ever seen, I’m stunned at the rehabilitation, the Twitter account that’s become mandatory viewing and the dodgy dancing.
If anything, he’s more popular than ever.
What annoyed most about his decision to deliberately hit a ball while it was still moving on the green – a show of defiance on a day of lunacy on Shinnecock Hills Saturday last year – wasn’t just his choice to railroad his way through the rules and the spirit of the game.
It was the initial lack of remorse afterwards. We all needed to “toughen up”.
Walking among the fans the very next day, though, I was struck by the reaction. What had transpired was irrelevant, they revealed. It was a “tough course” and “it didn’t matter” came the universal reply.
I wondered why he was getting such a free pass, assured by the knowledge that had a player of lesser profile repeated the trick they’d be enduring a much harder time.
It couldn’t just be down to a few thumbs up and a line of autographs after a round.
Pebble is Phil’s place. He’s a Californian. He’s won at the Beach five times. These are his people.
So where better to try and understand the effect he has on a crowd?
The pro tour can be a pretty soulless place during play. It’s largely all business. Look right ahead, channel out the distractions, stay in the moment.
Fans call, they yell, they encourage but – and particularly when so much is on the line – they can be pleas that go unanswered.
Mickelson, though, is masterful in the way he works his audience. When he engages, it’s on such a personal level.
He doesn’t just look in your direction, he looks right at you and acknowledges you. It makes you feel a bit giddy.
“Sandy par, Phil. You taught me how,” one elderly man yells across the 16th fairway as Mickelson walks to his approach lodged in a bunker short of the green.
When Lefty catches his gaze and nods, the pensioner is ecstatic – to the point of being upbraided by a marshal for getting too loud.
Mickelson’s performing these tiny rituals, largely unnoticed unless you really look for them, hundreds of times a round.
Every time the impact on the recipient is seismic and each occasion spreads his popularity ever further.
That approach doesn’t alter whether it’s accompanying a birdie blitz or, as was the case today, struggling to a 1-over 72 on a morning of US Open easier scoring with what must be one of the shortest missed putts in tournament history.
😡 "He is steaming right now. That is embarrassing"
Phil Mickelson misses a tiddler for par and is not best pleased.
— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) June 13, 2019
Anyone else would want to sprint to the putting green after that. He’ll still spend that hour going up and down the line with a Sharpie.
So I’m sold. I’ve become a convert – the newest member of the Phil cult. No wonder everybody loves him.