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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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Though he was never invited to swing a club on The Mike Douglas Show, Mickelson, like Woods, was a precocious striker of the ball. Mickelson has seen eight-millimeter films of his swing as a beginner and says it's strikingly similar to his swing today—long, rhythmic, generally flawless. In golf-rich San Diego he routinely beat the older kids. When he was six, his parents would drop him off at a par-3 course where he would play all day. He got his first complete set of clubs at seven, after finishing second in the 10-and-under division of a San Diego Junior Golf Association tournament. He was good at other sports and played them on the sandlots from time to time, but it was golf that captivated him; like Woods, his love for the game and his willingness to work at it never flagged. When Phil was nine, he announced to his parents, "I want to play golf for a job," and that never changed. He won the '90 U.S. Amateur at age 20, three NCAA championships ('89, '90 and '92) at Arizona State and the '91 Northern Telecom Open as a college junior, birdieing the 72nd hole to beat Tom Purtzer and Bob Tway by one stroke. When he turned pro at the '92 U.S. Open, his was the most heralded debut since Nicklaus came waddling out of Ohio State in a porkpie hat and remained so until Tiger was uncaged in '96.

So why wouldn't Phil Mickelson have unshakable confidence in his own game? His early and frequent success fed Mickelson's unshakable sense that there is no tree so tall, no water so wet, no rough so high, no pin placement so formidable that he cannot master it. During one of the first tournaments in which he caddied for Mickelson, Jim (Bones) Mackay observed a perilous lie and suggested punching a seven-iron under the trees. "I was thinking," said Phil, "I'll hit a nine-iron over the trees." Which is what he did. Mickelson and Mackay have come to an understanding that once a year the caddie gets to veto a Mickelson shot selection. Mackay used it two years ago at the Compaq Classic in New Orleans when Lefty, caught in high rough, wanted to try a skip shot over water.

As important as competition in the Mickelson household, though, were rules. If you misbehaved before bedtime, you couldn't play golf the next day. If you threw a club, your clubs were taken away. (Phil says he never threw one.) If you were at the dinner table, you were required to speak at least two sentences about your day. If you neglected to put the napkin on your lap, you were required to leave the table and count to 10 before you could return. At a restaurant in San Diego one night 10-year-old Phil caught his father with a napkinless lap and called him on it; dad got up, went out the door and could be heard counting outside. Mickelson's boyhood was about actions and consequences, and he and his wife are raising their children the same way.

In Mickelson's world there is a prescribed way of doing things, a path. You can use your celebrity to get good seats, but you pay for your tickets, as he does when he watches friends like Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets and Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks. You get out your wallet to pay for golf, too, when you're not competing. On the Monday before the British Open, Mickelson took Mackay and two friends to St. Andrews for 18 holes and paid full freight. You acknowledge good shots by your playing partners, even if you don't feel like it. En route to a disheartening double bogey during his second round at Muirfield, Mickelson nodded his head toward Hal Sutton, whose approach had settled three feet from the cup on number 14. "Good shot in there, Hal," Mickelson said without much feeling. You interact with the members of your pro-am foursome, make them feel like part of the team. At the International at Castle Pines near Denver two weeks ago, one of Mickelson's pro-am partners, Jeff Akers, introduced Mickelson to his two sons. "You know what Phil said to them?" Akers reported. " 'Thanks for coming out and watching your dad play' Can you imagine that?" If someone is loyal to you, you are loyal in return. His 10-year working relationship with Mackay, a rarity on the Tour, is a study in mutual loyalty. Caddies are notorious gossips, but Mackay, an engaging and popular man among pros and caddies, will reveal almost nothing about his boss.

"How did Phil play today?" Bones might be asked by a reporter.

"Is this off the record?" Bones asks.

"Yes," says the reporter.

"Real well," answers Bones.

Rules. There are always rules. Without exception Mickelson will refuse to sign autographs during a round, but he will almost always fill every single request afterward. "O.K., I'm going to sign for 25 minutes and walk out along that path, so have the car over there," he'll say to Bones. Signing is what you do, even if you're thinking about your escape route as you do it. Mickelson has been criticized for being insincere, as he stands there gripping and grinning among fans for as long as half an hour, and lately he has even been accused of doing it specifically to accentuate one difference between himself and Woods. That is nonsense: Mickelson has mingled with fans from his first moment on Tour, and if there is a studied aspect to his amiability, well, so be it. As he signed all manner of stuff after a round at the International, a woman, practically in tears, said to Mickelson, "Do you know what this means to us, to have you out here signing and talking to us after every round?" Yes, madame, he knows exactly what it means.

But now the boy who knows all the rules, the smartest boy in the room, the boy who just knows he can hit his nine-iron over those trees, has someone he just can't beat. What does he do? How does he act Mickelson is widely recognized as a player—perhaps the only top player—who hasn't capitulated to Woods, who refuses to worship at the altar. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, this is either a good thing (demonstrating a competitive ardor that others, such as Duval, now a member of the Tiger cult, lack) or a bad thing (demonstrating jealousy toward the one player who is not only more talented than everyone else but who has also modified his game to a degree that others, particularly Mickelson, have not). But isn't it refreshing when an athlete retains some degree of animosity toward a fellow competitor, no matter its source?

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