News & Opinion

Mickelson stands out as modern-day Arnie

At the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, Phil Mickelson was playing in his second Open as a professional. He was 24. Arnold Palmer was playing his last Open. He was 64.

After Palmer finished his second round – it was clear he was not going to make the cut – he walked into the volunteers’ tent and Mickelson followed him, keeping his distance. After a brutally hot day, Palmer was signing autographs for all of the volunteers present, thanking each one for helping put on the Open.

Mickelson said to himself, I want to be like that.

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© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Phil Mickelson borrows a page from the Palmer playbook and signs plenty of autographs.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Phil Mickelson borrows a page from the Palmer playbook and signs plenty of autographs.

Twenty-three years later, Mickelson was in the hunt for his 43rd PGA Tour victory at the WGC Mexico Championship just outside Mexico City. He is 47. On the way to the driving range to warm up for the final round, he passed a group of kids crowded behind a temporary railing. They shouted to him, presumably asking for his autograph. He responded to them in Spanish, presumably to tell them that he would come by after the round.

In Spanish. Who does that?

During the playoff, in which Mickelson defeated Justin Thomas, Mickelson walked off the 17th tee, which was the playoff hole, and put his arm around a maroon-jacketed tournament official, presumably to thank him for putting on the tournament.

During the playoff. Who does that?

The late, great Jim Murray, the longtime Los Angeles Times columnist, once wrote that God whispered into Jack Nicklaus’ ear and said, “You’ll be the greatest of all time.” He whispered into Arnold Palmer’s ear and said, “But they will love you more.”

Mickelson is the Arnold Palmer of his generation. Before you head to your keyboard in protest, Palmer was the King and always will be. There never will be another Arnie. But if Palmer was the King, Mickelson is the Crown Prince.

Tiger Woods is the greatest player of his generation, no question. Last week at the Valspar Championship, crowds were 15-20 deep to get a glimpse of Woods, who had channeled his inner Lazarus and practically rose from the dead. The backdrop was a sea of cellphones, fans taking photos to commemorate this moment that Woods was back and in the hunt.

But people love Mickelson more. Everywhere he plays, he is carried along in a wave of affection and optimism, the gallery practically living and dying with every shot. They crowd around him as he escapes miraculously from the trees. They cheer wildly with every super flop shot. They celebrate every vital putt that he makes as he pumps his fist into the air.

And he loves them back. You’ll see him, as he walks down the 18th fairway, acknowledging the crowd lining the fairway and around the back of the green – smiling, waving and giving the thumbs-up – much like Arnie did.

Mickelson probably signs more autographs than the next five PGA Tour players put together. He’s been seen signing for an hour – in a light rain.

In the rain. Who does that?

Mickelson has five majors among his 43 victories, and he was an easy World Golf Hall of Fame choice. But he’s never been No. 1 in the world because he has played his best golf in the Tiger era. And it haunts him that he has finished second six times in the U.S. Open without a victory. He still believes he can win – and complete the career Grand Slam – despite the fact that no one his age has ever won the Open.

However, Mickelson is 16-1 to win the Masters, according to Ladbrokes, the U.K. betting shop. He will come into the year’s first major playing, if not the best golf of his life, something very close. Before winning in Mexico, he tied for fifth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, tied for second at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and tied for sixth at the Genesis Open.

Mickelson has won the Masters three times and, believe it or not, has every chance to win his fourth. In three weeks, the world will have its eyes on the resurgence of Woods at Augusta, and he will attract most of the attention.

That should be just fine with Mickelson. He can quietly go about winning his fourth green jacket – at age 47. That might surprise others, but it wouldn’t surprise Mickelson – or his loyal following.

Age 47? Who does that?

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter@mikepurkeygolf