Tiger Woods stopped winning major championships at age 32. Arnold Palmer was done winning majors by the time he turned 35. Phil Mickelson didn’t start winning majors until he was almost 34, at which point one of the most notable underachievers in golf history began transforming himself into one of the top 15 players of all-time.
That boom-or-bust dynamic goes a long way toward defining the career of a man known to take ridiculous risks on the course and make some robust wagers off it. Mickelson spent years flirting with the edge of competitive common sense, as if to prove that everyone who messes around at the top of a cliff isn’t destined to wind up at the bottom of it.
“I don’t care if I never win a major,” he proclaimed in the spring of 2003. “I won’t ever change, not tomorrow or at Augusta National, the U.S. Open or any other tournament. I’m not going to play this game without the enjoyment I have right now, and I believe if I continue to play the style of golf I’ve been playing, I will win my share of majors.”
He was right, of course. Mickelson triumphed at the Masters barely a year later in one of the most dramatic finishes imaginable, then claimed three additional major titles over the next six years before mounting another heroic, final-round charge to win the 2013 British Open. His legacy as one of the best ever to play the game is secure, his litany of failures merely strengthening the notion that the larger-than-life Lefty is among the most resilient golfers of this or any other era.
And though he continues to maintain the body of a bowler and the mentality of a jewelry thief, Mickelson knows the end is getting near.
He turned 48 in June. His only victory since the ’13 British Open came out of nowhere, at the WGC-Mexico Championship seven months ago, which was enough to lure U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk into adding Mickelson to the team.
Amid arched eyebrows and cries of cronyism, the doubters saw better options. In the end, the doubters were right.
Mickelson’s dreadful performance in France was topped by a sour-grapes assessment of the setup at Le Golf National. “The fact is, they had brutal rough, almost unplayable, and it’s not the way I play,” he said. “I’m not going to play in tournaments with rough like that anymore. It’s a waste of my time.”
It was an interesting reaction from a guy who has piled up six
runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, where debilitating rough was born and raised. In the 20 seasons since losing at the buzzer to Payne Stewart in 1999, the first of those six second-place showings, Mickelson has compiled a ghastly 156th average ranking in fairways hit. Only once (2001) did he manage to sneak inside the top 100.
His remarkable short game is what kept him alive at all those national championships. PGA Tour statistics can be a bit deceiving, but since Mickelson ranked fourth in overall scrambling and third from the sand in 2016, the numbers suggest his deft touch around the greens isn’t what it once was. He’s still above average compared to his Tour brethren, but when you’re missing almost half of the fairways on a regular basis, above average doesn’t always cut it.
Given that Mickelson had publicly lobbied for a spot on the Ryder Cup squad – one could surmise that he recently opened a Twitter account primarily for that purpose – his harsh criticism of Le Golf National sounded like a hollow excuse. He knew Europe skipper Thomas Bjorn would impose a significant penalty for missing the fairways, the better to improve his team’s chances of beating the length-crazed Americans.
Lefty wanted desperately to be on the team but had to know, especially as he continued to struggle throughout the summer, that he didn’t belong on the roster. He should have told Furyk as much. He should have stuffed his ego in his pocket and accepted a role as one of America’s 67 vice captains, but then, as we’ve learned, Philip Alfred Mickelson doesn’t always think clearly in times of distress.
Consider this year’s U.S. Open, when Mickelson struck a moving ball on the 13th green during the third round. His initial explanation for such an egregious act was far-fetched to the point of amusement, and a few days later, he came clean.
“My anger and frustration got the best of me,” Mickelson conceded. “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by my actions.”
So, other than the week in Mexico, Mickelson has had a tough year. A tough several years, actually, as a man who won five majors and 21 times overall in a 9½-year stretch on the PGA Tour now finds himself 3 down to Father Time. Don’t look now, but that match might be on its way to the 16th tee.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org