In the manner of an insinuating nightclub magician, Phil Mickelson shuffles a deck, deftly fans out the cards, instructs a visitor to pick out a card (any card), memorize it, reinsert it and hand back the deck
"I haven't once looked at your card, is that correct?" he asks.
"That is correct."
Mickelson turns over the cards, studies them for a moment and feigns frustration.
"Oh, wait a minute," he says, "is this it?" He holds up his left palm, upon which is neatly stamped in ink a 5 and the symbol for diamonds. His mark's card, of course.
A magician with cards and, on occasion, with every club in his big, black bag, Mickelson—a.k.a. Lefty, a.k.a. World No. 2, a.k.a. the Best Player Never to Have Won a Major—is currently pulling off the neatest trick of all. Going into this week's PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., this millionaire who flies to most tournaments on his own plane, this privileged guy with the gorgeous blonde wife and two cherubic daughters ( Amy Mickelson just found out that she is pregnant again, and Phil is hoping for "a sleeve of daughters"), this sweet-swinging member of the establishment in the ultimate establishment sport has somehow become...the People's Choice. His ascendancy to that station had been apparent for some time, but it was quite literally in the air during the U.S. Open in June. Chants of LET'S GO MICK-EL-SON! boomed across the plains of Bethpage Black on Long Island, as Mickelson, winner of 21 PGA Tour events but no majors, staged another grinding, grimly contested yet ultimately unsuccessful charge at Tiger Woods. Last month Mickelson stumbled to a 66th-place finish at Muirfield (somewhat predictably, since he has never finished higher than 11th in the British Open), but he will stroll onto the grounds at Hazeltine carrying with him the hopes of the golfing masses.
Well, perhaps that's a bit strong. It goes without saying that Woods commands larger galleries, and others engaged in that heated battle to stand on the rung directly below Tiger (British Open champion Ernie Els, former No. 1 David Duval, 22-year-old Sergio Garc�a) have their full-throated advocates. But Mickelson is clearly the Tiger-chaser of choice. Watching Mickelson spray one of the drives that helped produce the second-day 76 that set him back at Muir-field, a British Open marshal shook his head ruefully. "Everyone over here pulls so hard for that lad," he said. Similar sentiments are pervasive among the gallery at every tournament in which Mickelson, a lad of 32 in his 10th full year on the Tour, competes.
In that respect there is a curious disconnect between his adoring public on the one hand, and his more skeptical peers and the press on the other. Perhaps that is not surprising since Mickelson himself is a walking paradox. He looks and acts, for the most part, like the button-down president of the local Rotary, but he has a reputation, well deserved, as a canny, go-for-it-all gambler. He plays everything to win, from gin rummy with his wife to Ping-Pong with his caddie, yet it's being said with increasing regularity that he doesn't have the will to win, that he's comfortable and happy (which he is), and content with being one of Tiger's well-compensated Sunday stooges (which he's not). His deftness around the greens is much celebrated—hardly a hacker alive doesn't invoke Mickelson's name after an L wedge snuggles near the hole—but he's among the game's longest hitters and, moreover, a sometimes unreliable putter. Doesn't it figure, then, that the man called Lefty is actually a righty?
Golf journalists praise Mickelson as an intelligent player who will show up in the pressroom after both good rounds and bad and who will usually have something thoughtful to say. A number of these same journalists, though, doubt Mickelson's sincerity, and Tour insiders have compared him with Eddie Haskell, the unctuous, two-faced brat from Leave It to Beaver.
Among his fellow pros Mickelson is no loner, as is, say, Mark O'Meara's favorite fishing bud. Mickelson will hang around the locker room to schmooze, as opposed to Woods who, as veteran Nick Price puts it, "is like a rock star who comes into the locker room for two minutes and is gone again." Mickelson's playing style is defended by, among others, Greg Norman, another aggressive player who said not long ago, "I hope Phil doesn't change. He's going to win his share of tournaments, and he's going to lose his share of tournaments, and that's it." Yet an anti-Mickelson feeling is detectable, especially among the older set. (That was true in the beginning with Woods as well, but he has earned universal respect simply by winning; criticize Tiger personally and you sound jealous; criticize his game and you sound like a blithering idiot.) In fact, dissing Lefty has become a bit of a cottage industry lately. "Phil's a nice player, he's a good player, but he's not a great champion," Jack Nicklaus said before this year's Masters, giving voice to a sentiment also tossed about by Gary Player. ( Arnold Palmer has made similar comments but has also supported Mickelson's gung-ho style, probably because that's the way Arnie played.) "He's gifted physically, but he's got a ways to go mentally," says Price, still a force on the Tour at 45. At this year's British Open one veteran disparagingly said, " Mickelson has more talent in his little finger than I've got in my whole body, but until he changes his ways on the golf course and becomes more of a strategist, he won't reach his true potential." John Daly goes out of his way to praise Mickelson's talent but makes a point that he would not trade his two majors (the 1991 PGA and the '95 British Open) for all of Mickelson's victories and the $21.5 million he's earned in purses (including $3.7 million in 2002). When Price says, "I'm not sure how much the other guys [besides Tiger] want to be Number 1," as he did recently and has done several times in the past, he is now talking primarily about Mickelson. In the opinion of the older vets who believe that Lefty has not sufficiently retooled his game to become a major winner, Mickelson is demonstrating not only an unwillingness to rise to the Tiger challenge but also a contempt for the game itself.