News & Opinion

PGA Tour's gain will be Champions Tour's loss ... at least for a while

As long as five-time major winner Phil Mickelson still is ‘hitting bombs,’ he intends to compete against golf's best competition

Phil Mickelson is still “hitting bombs,” which is good news for the PGA Tour but not so much for its Champions Tour branch.

The senior circuit kicked off last week in Hawaii with the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. Ernie Els was on hand, a distinguished name to have aboard. But that addition also came with a subtraction, or at least a rebuff.

2019 BMW Championship
As long as Phil Mickelson still can slug it out with the likes of Brooks Koepka, he intends to compete against the world’s best, even after turning 50 in June.

Phil Mickelson sat down with what’s left of the traveling golf press corps at the PGA Tour’s American Express in La Quinta, Calif., and made clear that he has no intention of joining the Champions Tour any time soon.

Filed under “Time Marches On,” Mickelson turns 50 on June 16 this year, or Tuesday of U.S. Open week. He has committed to a new diet, a serious workout routine and made a running gag of his "Phil Kwon Do calves.” He is profoundly prepared to compete with the flat bellies. The Champions Tour is not even on the radar.

“I haven't thought too much about it,” Mickelson said before he shot 70-72 to miss the cut. He will play his hometown event, the Farmers Insurance Open, this week at Torrey Pines in San Diego before heading overseas to the European Tour’s Saudi International next week. “And I won't until I see how the first six months of this year go, because I've had this, I've had kind of a lot of great things happen that lead me to be encouraged about the year, and I'm curious to see how the first six months go.

“When I stop hitting bombs, I'll play the Champions Tour,” he added, “but I'm hitting some crazy bombs right now. No, I still have speed … there's no reason I couldn't play out here.”

Don’t know what the attrition rate is on crazy bombs, or exactly when Mickelson might reconsider. But where the CT is concerned, the bombs can’t stop soon enough. That’s not to suggest the situation is desperate. The CT knows where its bread is buttered – in places such as Des Moines, Iowa; Biloxi, Miss.; and Sioux Falls, S.D.

This is an outfit with almost zero network TV presence and precious little sports-page space. And yet it makes ends meet in the middle of smaller markets, where professional golf is in short supply and entertainment dollars have elasticity. Like that sound in Taos, Mexico, nobody can explain it, but it just keeps humming along.

It’s not the genuine article, just a reasonable facsimile. It’s a bit more accessible, brandishes no cuts, requires only three days of players’ attention instead of four, and features some old favorites you’ll recognize. At least, it used to.

These days, Silverado could use a little star-power botox. Scott McCarron led the Charles Schwab Cup money list in 2019. Jerry Kelly was a close second. Others crowding the top were Kirk Triplett, Woody Austin, Scott Parel, Billy Andrade, Retief Goosen and Kevin Sutherland.

Of the top 15 Schwab finishers, only three have major championships on their resume: Goosen, Bernhard Langer and David Toms.

Oh, there are PGA Tour wins sprinkled about, but the term “household” does not go with any of those names. No disrespect intended. We’re talking product awareness here, not playing credentials. For the most part, these guys have been on the short list of “best players in the world” throughout their careers. That list is considerably shorter in golf than it is in other sports.

But perception is crowd-pleasing reality, and from a promotional standpoint, the mere mention of “Paul Broadhurst” or even “Steve Stricker” does not crash the server at StubHub. Age has caught Hale Irwin, and it’s trying to tackle Langer from behind.

Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III … yeah, they’re still out on occasion. Nice to see them. John Daly is around, but that act has become more curiosity-based than must-see. Tom Watson doesn’t play much and turns 70 this year. Greg Norman never crossed over. There isn’t much to get your billboard blood pumping.

And when you look down the road, not much is on the horizon. Tiger Woods just turned 44, six years removed. He doesn’t play that often on the PGA Tour, so it’s hard to imagine him being a frequent CT flyer.

The rest of the game’s marquee names are far off in the distance, the kind of distance that makes you wonder about the interim. Dustin Johnson turns 36 this year; Brooks Koepka, 30; Rory McIlroy, 31. The Champions crowd won’t even have Patrick Reed to harass until Aug. 5, 2040. The big exception is Mickelson. He wouldn’t just move the needle for the CT; he’d make it jump.

Mickelson has 44 PGA Tour wins, which is more than Watson, Irwin, Lee Trevino, Gary Player or anyone currently teeing Champions Tour ground. From a glorified standpoint, his major-championship cache of five wins is deceptively modest because he is equally renowned for his near-misses.

Woods won 15 majors, but Mickelson has been stretched for the finish line nearly as often. “Lefty” has completed majors in a tie for third or better 23 times. That’s more than Ben Hogan (17), Arnold Palmer (19), Sam Snead (22) or Watson (17) and only three fewer times than Woods.

Jack Nicklaus laps the field with 46 such finishes – stick that in your “greatest player ever” pipe and smoke it.

When $9 million got tossed into a prime-time pot last year, and a made-for-TV match was sought for Woods, Mickelson was the obvious dance partner, even at age 48. Bottom line, he would be the biggest thing to hit the Champions Tour since electric carts and tendinitis straps.

The guess here is that Mickelson will embrace a Champions Tour major or two in the not-too-distant future. The money’s good, and you know what they say: If you can’t win a U.S. Open, win a Senior Open. Quite a few of them have said that.

Picture the headlines, “Mickelson Gets Monkey Off Back,” “Better Late Than Never” and “Suck It, Winged Foot!”

That’s how it played when Palmer and Watson won Senior PGA Championships, and when Colin Montgomerie won the first of his Monopoly majors. In today’s vernacular, it’s fake news. None of the senior majors is listed on the career Grand Slam menu. But that kind of story, with or without asterisk, would be irresistible.

Then again, maybe Fitbit Phil will chase away the ghosts, get his Winged Foot revenge and write that story this summer. If he does, he’s likely to kick the senior can even farther down the road.

That’s good for the PGA Tour but not so much for the Champions Tour.

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