News & Opinion

Phil Mickelson could save Champions Tour, but will he?

Phil Mickelson at 2020 PGA Championship
Now that he has turned 50, Phil Mickelson can play the Champions Tour, but don’t look for him to be a regular with the seniors.

A tour designed to celebrate Arnold Palmer in his twilight years desperately needs a new star, and Mickelson could be that guy, but don't expect it because he still wants to win on the PGA Tour

Here’s the big question: Can Phil Mickelson save senior golf?

The short answer: Yes.

The longer answer: Yes, but … he probably won’t because he won’t play enough senior golf.

Mickelson turned 50 on June 16, but there’s nothing wrong with his memory. He knows that he won a PGA Tour event only 18 months ago, and if he can win at 48, there’s no reason in his mind to doubt that he can win at 50. (Ours, yes; his, no.)

His run at a Presidents Cup spot came up short last year. His Ryder Cup run came up short this summer, too, except that he got a stay of execution. The cup was postponed until September 2021. There’s still time for Mickelson to make more history.

Let’s not debate whether the Champions Tour needs saving. Its members undeniably are great players who provide an entertaining experience for fans who attend their exhibitions/tournaments. When it comes to getting attention in the modern information age, an old-school description fits: the senior circuit can’t get arrested.

Good luck finding multiple stories about senior tournaments online or in that weird thing some seniors still look at: a newspaper. Worse, senior golf highlights are not regulars on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” the center of the sports universe.

The Champions Tour is, too often, out of sight and out of mind. You probably missed the Scott McCarron Era and didn’t notice that Bernhard Langer is still getting it done at, what, 63? Seventy? Seventy-eight? Who knows? The man has been winning forever. It’s easier to defeat The Mummy than outlast this gracious German.

Retief Goosen is a senior winner. Ernie Els is now, too. Jim Furyk just snagged a victory in his first geezer start. (I’m a geezer, so I can use that word.)

And now, here comes the man known as Lefty. I can make your pulse break into a sprint in one sentence without even using a verb: Phil Mickelson, 61.

That happens to be the first score of the first round of the first day of the rest of Phil Mickelson’s Champions Tour life. He made 11 birdies and shot 61 to lead the Charles Schwab Series at Ozarks National in Ridgedale, Mo., breathing life into the fading relevance of senior golf. He expanded his lead to four strokes entering Wednesday’s final round (scores).

Mickelson, who turned 50 last month, is exactly what the Champions Tour needs. He’s a big name. He’s the second-biggest name in modern golf, and has been for the past 20-plus years. You know the other guy. He leads Mickelson in major championships, 15-5, and in victories, 82-44. Don’t say his name; he might materialize and steal this story about Mickelson, too.

Mickelson and That Other Guy have been golf in America for the past 25 years. The senior circuit has been in a bit of a lull. The 1990s were the glory days. The tour was constructed so two new generations of fans could get a chance to see Arnold Palmer win again. Then came Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino, too.

Superstars made this product work. ESPN played a role, too.
Next in the superstar line is Mickelson, except he’s won $91 million on the course and much more off the course in endorsements.

Will the Champions Tour capture his interest? A few weeks ago, Mickelson sounded ambivalent about playing senior golf. Though he said all the right things about the Charles Schwab Challenge and Ozarks National and all of his old buddies on the senior tour, he’s treating this week and his early exit from the FedEx Cup playoffs (he could’ve been the oldest man to play in a Tour Championship, had he made it to Atlanta’s finale) as an opportunity to compete and get sharp for the big game he’s got his eye on, the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in September.

Note: He got a reprieve on that, too. Mickelson was going to have to do 36-hole Open qualifying until the pandemic hit, qualifiers were canceled and his world ranking got him into the field at the site where he lost the 2006 Open and famously said, “I am such an idiot.”

Mickelson could light a fire under the Champions Tour. He and That Other Guy (who’s still 5½ years away from 50) sell tickets and draw galleries. They still move the needle. They’re still the only ones who do on a big scale.

The King is gone, but Mickelson is the closest thing golf fans have to another Arnie. Heroic shots, amazing charges and boneheaded mistakes are part of both men’s legacies.
Mickelson also signs a lot of autographs, like Arnie, and his signature is legible, just like Arnie always insisted.

None of that is an accident. It began at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, a memorable event because Tom Watson led after the first round and Jack Nicklaus tied for second; Ernie Els beat Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a Monday playoff; O.J. Simpson drove his Ford Bronco on television that week; and Arnie played his final Open, at home, and missed the cut.

Mickelson was on his way to the range after his round when he saw Palmer, drained from an emotional farewell-to-the-Open press conference, taking time to visit the tournament volunteers’ tent. When Mickelson was done practicing, drenched in sweat, he walked back to the clubhouse and saw Palmer still in the tent, still signing. That’s when he told himself something like, That’s the guy I want to be.

You know the rest. Mickelson is no Arnie, but no one can be. The public loves him, imperfections and all, because he gives them some love back. That’s all they ask.

Still, he didn’t go on a dramatic fitness regime, get stronger and drop a bunch of weight to get ready for the Champions Tour this week. He did it to chase more history, whether that means more majors or his stated goal of 50 victories.

What could change his mind about where to play is winning on a regular basis. Langer, Furyk, Els and Steve Stricker and the rest are still tough to beat. It’s not a given that Mickelson would dominate.

It will be up to Mickelson to decide whether battling for a top-20 finish on the PGA Tour is more fun than competing to win almost every time he tees it up in senior golf.

Or, perhaps, more fun than commentating from the 18th-hole tower of a major television network and knowing that everyone who cares about golf is listening. Mickelson had a post-round stint with Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo of CBS during the PGA Championship’s third round, and Mickelson stuck the landing, most agreed. Well, not Golf Channel’s Justin Leonard, who quipped that Mickelson “turned CBS into Phil-B.S.” Leonard may have been kidding.

That old commercial is still quoted because it’s still appropriate: What will Phil do next?

It probably won’t be saving – let’s say reinvigorating – the senior tour. He’s aiming much higher. But if anyone could do it, he could. He’s Phil.

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