OK, so he missed the cut badly last week on the PGA Tour, but he’s still got the drive and game to win against the world’s best golfers
Underestimating Phil Mickelson always has been a dangerous proposition. Upon completing a fabulous amateur career that included a PGA Tour victory at age 20 – he remains the last man to forfeit a first-place paycheck – the left-hander needed 12 long years to remove that can’t-win-the-big-one sticker from his chest. The unforgettable triumph at the 2004 Masters was the first of Mickelson’s five major titles, all of which occurred after his 33rd birthday. Tiger Woods won 14 majors before he turned 33. Philly Mick had to settle for numerous nominations as best supporting actor.
Not five months after Woods slammed into a fire hydrant, Mickelson claimed a third Masters crown, but it was his astonishing rally in the closing moments of the 2013 British Open that forever will remain his finest hour. It was a tournament Mickelson never thought he’d win, something he freely admitted. To do it from five shots back at the start of play Sunday and roar past a half-dozen of the world’s best golfers for a three-stroke victory was a mind-boggling accomplishment. A performance for the ages.
Speaking of which, he’s almost 51 now, and if Mickelson isn’t the player he once was, he hasn’t been for a while. Those back-to-back wins in his Champions Tour debut last summer seemed only to expose the huge gap between senior golf and the game’s premier level. Winning never gets old, but the guys who make it a habit eventually do. When you’ve won 44 times and piled up $92 million in career earnings, you don’t go quietly, leaving Lefty with a difficult but can’t-lose decision.
Should he continue trying to beat dudes half his age or commit full-time to Geritol Ball? The senior circuit could desperately use Mickelson’s presence on a consistent basis, not so much to salvage but resuscitate a league known more for generating pro-am revenue than staging actual tournaments. Of course, that might be the biggest reason why Mickelson should stick with the day job he’s held since the spring of 1992.
He has nothing to gain by paddling a bunch of old guys five or six times a year. He’s an alpha-alpha male whose thirst for intense competition is legendary – he’ll bet you a hundred bucks on the coin toss at a Pop Warner football game – but money is a total non-issue here. Mickelson has enough dough to qualify for consideration as an Arabian prince. Again, that would seem to defeat the purpose of joining the seniors and ditching the PGA Tour altogether.
Then again… What’s the point if you can’t compete at a level to which you’ve grown so accustomed? Lefty missed the cut by six shots last week in the California desert. He’ll tee it up again Thursday at Torrey Pines in San Diego, a hometown event he’s won three times, although the last of those came way back in 2001. In fact, since that landmark conquest of the ’13 British, Mickelson has added just two victories to his collection in 7½ years.
Is he running on fumes, or does he have a couple of gallons left in the tank? My guess is no better than yours. Lefty himself is unsure where his future will unfold. “I’m excited to start the year and see if I’m able to continue playing at the highest level,” he said before failing to break par in either round as the tournament host in Palm Springs. “If I am, I’m really going to try to play more events on the PGA Tour and hopefully make a push for the Ryder Cup.”
Jeez, if there’s one thing Mickelson does better than hit flop shots, it’s changing his mind. “But if I don’t play well,” he added, “I’ll start to re-evaluate things and maybe play a few more events on the Champions Tour.” Sounds like a guy having a hard time admitting he’s 50. Mickelson swore up and down that he’d never play in another Ryder Cup after stinking it up in 2018 in France. He appeared in just two matches and got drummed in both, then ripped the Euro-friendly course setup and came off sounding a lot like a bitter old man.
The thing is, he isn’t. Mickelson was one of Jim Furyk’s four captain’s picks after vigorously campaigning for a spot that summer. It’s almost impossible to see him getting an at-large berth this time around, which means he’d have to play his way onto the U.S. team, which requires a commitment, which basically rules out a dual-tour schedule for the next few months. A hybrid schedule obviously is a possibility at some point, but we’re not talking about someone who’s going to show up for 25 or 30 tournaments a year, maybe 15 of those with the seniors.
He’s Phil Mickelson, and greatness buys him the freedom to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t have to play if he doesn’t feel like it, and though he made 24 starts as recently as 2018, we’ve heard numerous players over the years talk about how tough it is to juggle the two leagues. One features ceremonial golf with two days of hanging out with 12 handicaps. The other comes with a microscopic line between success and failure, a couple of million viewers every week and the possibility, however remote, that a four-day stretch of brilliance is just around the corner.
More than anything, the finest left-handed golfer who ever lived loves the challenge. The heat of battle, the rush of adrenaline, the enormity of the task. Mickelson is no more suited for the seniors than peanut butter is with tuna fish. He spent a decade as Woods’ pigeon and still managed to turn himself into one of the 10 or 12 best players of all-time.
You can take the man out of the fight, but you can’t take the fight out of the man. Mickelson should and certainly will continue searching for his 45th victory and sixth major title. Go ahead and laugh. Just don’t underestimate him.
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