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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One might more easily pry the nuclear launch codes out of the Department of Defense than find out what Woods thinks of something besides course conditions or his putting stroke, so inquiries about Mickelson would be futile and a sincere answer impossible to ascertain in any case. The belief on the Tour is that the main thing Tiger and Lefty agree on is their mutual enmity. There are already rumors that Woods will not play in the World Cup at Vista Vallarta in Mexico in December because the format mandates that a player be teamed with the countryman closest to him in the rankings, which would partner up Woods and Mickelson. Lefty is understandably weary of talking about Tiger, who not only dominates Mickelson's competitive life but also eclipses his accomplishments. His popularity among the masses notwithstanding, Mickelson sometimes feels like he has become a hood ornament, barely noticed as the Tiger limo speeds down the highway, and the fact that his peers are in the same position is small consolation to the World's No. 2. "Every question directed at Phil and every story written on him is eventually about Tiger," says T.R. Reinman, a golf writer turned p.r. man for Mickelson and other players, "so every match is an away match. That gets old."

The solution, of course, is both simple and daunting: Tame Tiger and the world is yours. Mickelson knows that he must address the subject of Tiger, so he does, gamely and at length. Some of his praise of Tiger is by rote. Mickelson has repeatedly credited Woods for the increased purses and interest he has brought to the game and repeatedly said that he and Tiger are not close largely because they live different lives, Mickelson as a married man with children, Woods a bachelor. Mickelson may have once been reluctant to acknowledge Woods's primacy but not now. "There's only one guy I'm worried about in the field, that I feel can beat me at any time," he says. Mickelson believes that Woods has changed the way that everyone approaches majors. "You may have the idea you can hang around and wait for him to make a mistake," says Mickelson, "but he simply doesn't make a mistake. So you have to attack the golf course right away, all because of him." He attributes Woods's superiority to two things: "His strength allows him to hit shots that the rest of us simply can't hit. And he's mentally tougher than any of us."

Ever so subtly, though, Mickelson will point to what he sees as one crucial difference between them. "Tiger has always wanted to become the greatest player who's ever lived," he says. Mickelson lets that hang in the air, like one of his stratospheric wedges. Has that ever been your goal? he is asked. He thinks about it for a minute. "Not like that. Not with the kind of focus he's put into it. To me, there are more important things in life than winning a bunch of majors and winning a bunch of tournaments. Now, I love winning and I love competing, but there's more to life than that. I don't want to shortchange myself or my potential. But it's not like I've been one-dimensional in my approach to the game, that the one and only thing is to become the greatest player of all time."

That might sound like the last refuge of the vanquished, the ultimate rationalization for surrendering to Woods. Certainly the immortal Greek chorus of Nicklaus-Palmer-Player would think so, as would Price and others. Mickelson knows how his words will be taken even as he says them. But he says them anyway. His life with Amy and their daughters is that wonderful, especially when you consider that a fertility expert once told his wife that she couldn't have children. A snapshot: From birth, Sophia did not sleep through the night, wailing loudly and persistently. Several weeks ago Phil announced he was going to remedy the problem, and for three nights in a row he got up from his bed at 15-minute intervals, went to her room and talked to her without picking her up or feeding her. Amy listened to his commentary on a monitor. Sophia, this is your daddy. It is not morning. The moon and stars are out, not the sun. You need sleep to be a healthy baby. Perhaps he even showed her a card trick or ran through the Denver Broncos special teams. Whatever, Daddy won the day, and Sophia is now a sleeper.

But though he has taken time away from the Tour to be with his family—"Did Phil have the baby?" was a familiar joke line around the Tour when Mickelson missed five months around the birth of Sophia last October—he feels it's nonsense to say he hasn't won a major because he's too content, or, more to the point, complacent. "A lot of times it's when an athlete's heyday is over that he decides it's time to get to know his kids, to teach them how to swim and watch them grow up," says Amy. "Well, Phil is doing those things right now."

Mickelson, you must understand, doesn't look at his career and see a guy who has been unable to win the big one. He sees a guy who was never good enough to win one until lately, a guy who, despite having been anointed one of the great ones a decade ago, has shown steady improvement to get near the top. He sees a guy who, before the disappointing British Open, had finished second, third and second in the last three majors. He sees a guy who, despite having heard some pointed insults about a soft upper body, believes he has done what's necessary to get in shape for 72-hole challenges against Woods. (His routine includes stretching with an exercise ball to strengthen his abs and back.) Standing up, he holds a dish towel above his head, straight out, and lowers it backward all the way to his hips, his answer to Woods's celebrated workout regimen. "My body has adapted to what I need to do to play golf," he says.

Most important, he sees a guy who, critics notwithstanding, believes he has made the kinds of modifications to his game that put him in position to win a major. "The scoring average I have in the last five U.S. Opens [71.15, a shade less than a stroke over par] would disprove the notion that I can't play a conservative style of golf," he says. Mickelson has worked on hitting the ball lower and with less spin, so he can approach a pin in different ways, rather than always hitting it behind the hole and saucing it backward. He employs more three-woods and long irons off the tee than he used to. He has conferred with short game guru Dave Pelz on putting into the wind. Lately he has even been working with a sports psychologist on trying to improve what he calls his "mental focus and mental stamina for 72 holes." Maybe I do need help, he seems to have decided. It would be fascinating to know how much the subject of No. 1 comes up in Mickelson's discussions with the psychologist. Els recently revealed that he solicited the help of Jos Vanstiphout, a sports psychologist from Belgium, partly because he had expended too much mental energy worrying about Woods.

But Mickelson carries a mental burden that Els (two U.S. Opens and the British), Duval (the 2001 British) and Davis Love III (the '97 PGA), among others, do not: Before he can truly turn his thoughts to chasing down Tiger, he must bag his major, which would carry with it a free pass into history. Not every golfer who wins a major is great—sorry, Paul Lawrie and Mark Brooks—but every great golfer must have a major on his r�sum�. What more can Mickelson, 0 for 41 in the four biggies (including four he played as an amateur), say about that cold fact? Talk about how life with Amy and the kids will go on even if he never gets one and he's considered soft; obsess about it and he'd be considered a twitchy head case. He can't get away from it. When the People's Choice sticks his first peg into the ground at Hazeltine, Alfred Santos, 95, and his wife, Jennie, 90, Mickelson's maternal grandparents, will be watching on television from their home in San Diego. The Santos's kitchen is adorned with 21 flags, each snatched from the 18th green by Mackay after a Mickelson victory. But Alfred has spoken. "No more flags," he has said, "unless it's a major." Now, that is pressure.

Mickelson sighs heavily and ponders the inevitable question. "Look, Hogan started winning majors at 34 or 35. I'm only 32. If I can elevate my game to the point that I hope to and can start beating arguably the greatest player of all time, then what would that make me?" But, Phil, what if you don't win a major, what if you're, like, 47, and you've won 40 tournaments but never a major? "What I'm more concerned about is how many can I win," says Mickelson. "Yes, I know I have to win one before I can think about two or three. But the idea that I'll be deep in my 40s without a major is not a concern of mine. So your question is an unrealistic hypothetical." Spoken, truly, like the smartest boy in the room.

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