News & Opinion

Mickelson shows softer side, eludes rough

Phil Mickelson said something that I’ve never heard any world-class athlete utter: That he isn’t good enough to compete on the most difficult venues in his sport.

Mickelson, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players ever, chose not to compete at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open after having played in his hometown event for 28 consecutive years. He lives within 20 miles of San Diego’s Torrey Pines and has played the North and South courses hundreds of times.

But he didn’t turn up this year simply because he thought Torrey Pines, particularly the South Course, was too hard for him.

Phil Mickelson sharpens the focus on his self-awareness by opting not to play courses with deep rough.

Phil Mickelson sharpens the focus on his self-awareness by opting not to play courses with deep rough.

“I’m not going to play tournaments with rough like that anymore. It’s a waste of my time,” Mickelson said last October. “I’m going to play courses that are playable and that I can play aggressive, attacking, make a lot of birdies, style of golf I like to play.”

And the week before the Farmers, Mickelson lived up to his word and competed in the Desert Classic, generously set up because the pros played for three rounds with amateurs. He shot 25 under par and finished tied for second, one back of winner Adam Long. During the Desert Classic, Mickelson announced that he would not play at Torrey Pines.

“Quite honestly, I just wasn’t sure I would be ready for a golf course that long and hard,” Mickelson said. “So, I’ve been kind of waiting to see how my game felt the first couple of days [at the Desert Classic]. [Torrey Pines] is one of the hardest courses we play. It’s 7,600 yards, the fairways are tight, there’s a lot of rough, and unless I’m playing my absolute best, that’s not really a great place for me.”

Would Tom Brady sit out playing in Denver or Kansas City in the winter because he thought it wouldn’t be a great place for him? Or if Michael Phelps doesn’t feel comfortable in a particular pool?

Of course not. Great athletes live for the moments when they willingly face every adversity that their sport throws their way – and find a way to overcome them.

I realize that Mickelson is an independent contractor who has the choice to play where he wants. And I know he’s 48 and already announced plans to cut back his schedule in 2019. Age shouldn’t be an issue. (Brady is 41, which is about 112 in football years.)

Kenny Perry won twice when he was 48, as did Fred Funk, who won the Players Championship in 2005 at that age. TPC Sawgrass probably was not a great place for Funk, who has as much guts as anyone who ever played.

Neither should distance be a problem for Mickelson, who regularly can hit his driver 300 yards or longer. Anyone who can hit it that far off the tee – and who has a short game like Mickelson’s – should have no trouble playing any course on the PGA Tour.

Mickelson is playing this week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, where he has won three times, including in 2013, where he shot 28-under 256 and won by four shots. Traditionally, TPC Scottsdale offers ample fairways and little rough for the WMPO. On Thursday, he opened with a 3-under 68, four strokes off the lead (scores).

Mickelson also will skip the Genesis Open at revered Riviera Country Club in two weeks, but he will play next week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he has won four times. As is the case with the Desert Classic, the three courses at Pebble likely will be set up with rough that might go unnoticed.

I get that Tiger Woods mostly plays where he has had previous success. But he doesn’t sulk and stay away from places because they happen to be difficult. Woods has won at Torrey Pines eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open. But that’s the last time he won at Torrey. And it didn’t prevent him from starting his 2019 at the Farmers.

Does this mean that Mickelson won’t play at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June? It’s bound to be as difficult, if not more so, than Torrey Pines. How about the PGA Championship at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in May? It’s among the hardest courses in the U.S.

This is just one more instance in which Mickelson’s hide is made of Teflon. Nothing sticks. He got off scot-free when he took a whack at a moving ball on a green at Shinnecock Hills at last year’s U.S. Open. If his name hadn’t been Mickelson, he’d no doubt have been disqualified.

There are still a number of people who think he got away with a crime when he took the advice of Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters and bought Dean Foods stock – illegally with insider information. Walters in is jail, and Mickelson just had to give back $1 million or so that he made in profits from the sale.

And now, he won’t be held to account for shirking his responsibility of being one of the top players in the game. All the greatest have stood up and met the challenges of championship golf, no matter how stern the test or the outcome.

Instead, Mickelson is choosing to take the softer way. Perhaps he’s not as tough as any of us thought.

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:; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf