LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Bury Phil Mickelson at your own risk … but I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
Yes, he hasn’t won in four years.
Yes, he pretty much stunk up the joint this year, at least by his past standards. Zero top-five finishes in stroke-play events, and no serious chances to win. Missed cuts at the British Open and PGA; a missed appearance at the U.S. Open.
Yes, he has flip-flopped between the claw and a conventional putting grip so often during the past few years that questions have arisen about his once-great stroke and just what kind of nerves are left in those 47-year-old hands.
And yes, I might not have picked him as a wild-card selection for the Presidents Cup team until he tied for sixth at the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston (“Mickelson wins spot on Presidents Cup team,” Sept. 7, http://bit.ly/2gOHlJs). That looked and felt like a turning point, however. He suddenly looked more like the old Phil instead of an old Phil. Anyone resembling the old Phil is someone whom you would want on your team for the mix of relentless positivity (it’s genuine) and playful trash-talking that makes him the MVP of almost every team room. (Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson might disagree.)
Mickelson kept his good Boston vibes going Thursday when he shot a bogey-free 5-under 66 here in the BMW Championship’s opening round (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH). The pros routinely tear up Conway Farms Golf Club. Aussie Marc Leishman shot 62 despite not making birdie on the reachable par-5 18th. But Mickelson is not known as Phast-Start Phil, so a good opening round should not be overlooked.
The media pundits who foolishly wrote off Mickelson in recent weeks (“Mickelson doesn’t deserve Presidents Cup pick,” Sept. 6, http://bit.ly/2xPbRqK) forgot one crucial thing: He loves being a contrarian. Leave it to Mickelson, whose 42 Tour victories include five major championships, to play his best when nothing is expected of him. And he often seems to play his poorest when the expectations are highest. There’s no reason for either, except that consistency always has remained beyond Mickelson’s grasp, just like the willingness not to go for broke or not blast driver as far as possible. He is who you think he is, and that hasn’t changed with age.
The 18th hole at Conway Farms is a reachable par 5 with water in front of the green. Mickelson was 4 under par standing in the 18th fairway and had 260 yards to clear the water, 270 to carry the bunker. He pulled 3-wood and went for the green.
After the round, a reporter asked Mickelson whether he had considered laying up. Mickelson paused for effect. “Seriously?” he said, through his familiar impish smile. Laughter ensued.
Mickelson cleared the water with his 3-wood, which he says he flies 275 yards, and made birdie.
Two more things indicate that Phil isn’t Phinished. One, he didn’t make a bogey, which is very unlike the Mickelson of the early 2000s, when his scorecard typically had more X’s and O’s than “Hollywood Squares.”
“To play a bogey-free round is a positive sign,” Mickelson said, noting the obvious. “Last year, one of the things I was most proud of was that I had four or five final rounds that were bogey-free. That’s something I wanted to build on this year, but I haven’t been sharp.”
Remember, it was only 11 months ago when he and Sergio Garcia combined for 19 birdies in their Ryder Cup singles showdown, a remarkable match that fittingly ended in a halve.
What went wrong this year? Mickelson says it’s not his psoriatic arthritis. But if it were, would his hefty endorsement deal with Enbrel allow him to say so? He made recent medical changes, which he didn’t specify, that he says have infused him with more energy – he had suffered at times from “a mental fog,” he said – and restored his focus for golf, something that had been missing.
The second reason we have more Mickelson to look forward to? This golfing life is too much fun to quit. He really wanted to make this Presidents Cup team, his 23rd consecutive international team event for the U.S. So much so, he conceded, that he “was really feeling the heat” going into Boston.
He wants to make next year’s Ryder Cup team, too, and he’d like to see his former Ryder Cup running mate, Keegan Bradley, back on that team. Bradley has been in a prolonged slump. Mickelson sent a text message to Bradley that read, “Hey, let’s have a special week. We’re close. We’re playing well. Let’s put it together.”
Bradley shot 65 in the opening round. Mickelson needs to finish at least 13th here to be among the 30 players to advance to next week’s Tour Championship.
“The scoring is starting to feel easy again,” Mickelson said.
Make a note, but definitely postpone that epitaph.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle