SI Vault
Jack McCallum
August 19, 2002
Rich, talented and supremely self-assured, Phil Mickelson is a gambling man who has yet to rake in golf's biggest pot—a major title. Is he tormented by that? Don't bet on it
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August 19, 2002

Major Issues

Rich, talented and supremely self-assured, Phil Mickelson is a gambling man who has yet to rake in golf's biggest pot—a major title. Is he tormented by that? Don't bet on it

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The vast majority of fans, however, couldn't care less what the insiders think. Mickelson is like a popular Broadway musical, a Cats, panned by the critics yet beloved by the masses. Mickelson signs everything (except golf balls), slaps a frozen smile on his face for every photograph and makes all his shanking pro-am partners feel like a million bucks. Woods, No. 1, is iconic, an object to gaze upon in awe as he marches, cold-bloodedly, to the winner's circle, never going pupil-to-pupil with a single fan. Mickelson, No. 2, is human, often disappointed but perpetually striving, earnestly smiling and signing and hugging his pretty young wife as he makes his honest run at the top spot.

Mickelson is as surprised by his status as the People's Choice ("All I can tell you is that it's awfully nice"), but he is also perturbed by the criticism he's received from the press and some of his peers. He does not respond to his critics with the sarcasm of a Duval or the smoldering anger of a Colin Montgomerie, but he is emphatic about this: He believes he has made significant changes to his game.

And, he says, he will win a major. Not just one but several.

Pro Golf has strayed so far from its hardscrabble hustler roots that millionaires now play bogus "skins games" at no risk to their bank accounts, and a man who wears vertical stripes and turns up the bill of his cap is an iconoclast of the first order. So it's not a giant leap to turn Philip Alfred Mickelson—a player who ambles languidly up every fairway, who has never thrown a club, who is not particularly chatty and who sometimes looks vaguely uncomfortable in the spotlight—into a swashbuckler. During practice rounds Mickelson has been known to make spontaneous wagers ("Bet I get down in two," he might say when he's 230 yards from the hole) that are overheard by the gallery. Famously, he won preseason bets on the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the World Series. Sitting in the Firestone clubhouse watching a playoff at the NEC Invitational last August, Mickelson had a hunch and offered 25-to-1 odds that Jim Furyk would hole a bunker shot. Mike Weir took him up on it, and after Furyk's shot disappeared into the hole, Mickelson collected $500. "Phil's the kind of guy who will bet you his luggage comes off the airport carousel first," says Bob Verdi, a writer for Golf Digest who knows Mickelson well, "if he ever flew commercial, that is."

He doesn't, of course. A pilot flies the golfer, his family, a babysitter and his caddie to most tournaments on Mickelson's Gulfstream-II, and Lefty is himself a licensed pilot, as well as the son of one. Amy has also taken flying lessons and plans to resume them after the birth of their third child, a stouthearted attitude considering that her husband, during what was supposed to be a routine flight, once stir-fried her insides by going into a Lazy 8, followed by an intentional stall and dead nosedive. Add to that picture the cocky little spin Mickelson frequently gives his club before he lines up a shot and his fire-at-the-pin playing style, and the portrait of a river-boat gambler is complete. You got a better nominee on this button-down Tour?

Mickelson cringes at the description of himself as an "adrenaline junkie," but he rather enjoys being known as a risk taker. Nevertheless, he resents questions about his gambling. He was reprimanded by the Tour after his bet with Weir was made public by a reporter who overheard it in the locker room, so don't even get him started on that subject. And he says that reports that his Super Bowl bet paid seven figures are wildly exaggerated. In fact, a friendly "syndicate" of 28 made the $20,000 preseason bet on the Ravens collectively. It included his mother-in-law, Renee McBride, various friends and even a couple of members of the media. Mickelson is extremely tight with McBride, whom Amy calls "Phil's closest female friend." They are both sports addicts—Renee is a weekly guest on a sports talk show on a Salt Lake City radio station—who burn up the phone lines before kickoff on Sunday. The syndicate members invested according to their means, so Mickelson ended up winning about $50,000 and his mother-in-law about $2,000, which she used to buy furniture.

While it's true that Mickelson rarely plays friendly golf without some kind of bet involved, it seems safe to conclude that his gambling is no more outrageous, or threatening to his substantial nest egg, than that of his fellow Tour pros. He made frequent trips to Las Vegas when he was in college but now goes only occasionally, usually with Amy, and plays baccarat. His passion for poring over NFL agate (he spent much of his 12-hour flight to the British Open studying preseason magazines, committing to memory the most obscure player moves), suggests a gambling Jones, as do the six TVs (including an 80-incher), each with its own satellite receiver, that beam every NFL game into the Mickelson house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. But he says he rarely bets on pro football, the preseason Super Bowl wager being an exception. "You can't win betting the NFL," he says, and Mickelson gambles to win. The real reason he's so absorbed in pro football is that Mickelson is a sports geek who loves being the only one in the room who can go three deep on every NFL team. "I see a depth chart on paper," he says, "and it's like a snapshot. I remember everything." Trust him on that: Unless you have 30 minutes to spare, do not ask the man a question about pro football.

Indeed, Mickelson has a more general tendency to demonstrate that he's the smartest guy in the room. While playing catch at his rented house two days before the British Open—Mickelson usually takes a baseball and a couple of gloves along on the road with him—he related the pitches he was throwing (righthanded, remember) to principles expounded by Stephen Hawking in The Universe in a Nutshell, which he was reading at the time, and described them thusly: "I'm going to put less lift on the ball, so there's not as much oscillation, so it's going to look like a screwball but won't move like one." That's a rough paraphrase anyway. Thirty minutes of this and his catcher couldn't decide whether to be more impressed with the presumptuous-ness of Mickelson's commentary or the fact that his pitches, for the most part, did exactly what he said they were going to do.

More significant than either his gambling or his smarter-than-thou attitude, though, is the issue of how his gambler's instincts affect Mickelson's golf. To determine that, it's necessary to study the roots of his playing style. His background in Southern California, where he grew up across the freeway from San Diego State, was solidly middle-class. Father Phil flew planes, mother Mary took care of the kids and later returned to work, running her own home-care company to help subsidize the golfing passions of Phil and his older sister, Tina (who has been a club pro and is now collaborating on a golf book with new-age guru Deepak Chopra), and younger brother, Tim (who is now the assistant golf coach at San Diego State). There's little doubt that Mickelson got the lion's share of his athletic chops from his father, who was selected to fly with the Blue Angels, taught fighter pilots, captained the ski team at Chico ( Calif.) State and played every sport he tried with an effortless grace. But there's more to it than that. From an early age, Mary Mickelson recalls, her older son was extremely stubborn. The oft-told story of how Phil became a lefthanded golfer—he was mirror imaging his father's swing-reflects that. Father would kneel behind son and set him up righthanded, but son would quickly reassume his lefty stance and hit it with the back of the club. This may be a cut-down club, but I'm going to play this game exactly how I want to! Little Phil finally just wore down his dad. The young Mickelson was rarely openly defiant but often tested limits. "Before he was a year old," his mother says, "we knew we had a problem on our hands." Mary says she sees that same independent streak in Sophia, Phil and Amy's 10-month-old. "He'll see what we went through," she says, laughing. "That makes me so happy."

Mary, more than her husband, was responsible for stoking her son's competitive fire. "Go out and have fun," the elder Phil would say to his son as he left for a tournament. Mary would then go over, hug him and whisper in his ear, "Have fun, but be sure to win." Mary Mickelson, 5'8" and 60 years old, is the starting point guard on the San Diego Stars, who last year won the three-on-three gold medal for 50-and-over teams at the Senior Olympics. "We're going after it again next year," she says. Three years ago, mother and son schooled a pair of surprised high-school-age males in two-on-two at the YMCA. A recent morning in San Diego (she and her husband still live in the house where they raised their children) found Mary following this agenda: work a few hours pressing flowers, her new hobby, then go out and shoot baskets at the hoop-and-glass backboard in the driveway. The comparison with the world's No. 1 is unavoidable: Earl Woods is generally recognized as the stage father of his son's career, but those close to Woods say that it was his mother, Tida, who instilled in him his iron will to win.

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