After improbable PGA victory, Mickelson plans for 51st-birthday victory lap at Torrey Pines and perhaps spot at Whistling Straits
Phil Mickelson can be transparently mysterious or mysteriously transparent, depending on his mood, which can be playful, sarcastic or thoughtful, sometimes all in the same long sentence.
His wildly unexpected victory at the PGA Championship at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., not only made time stand still, it cranked the clock back a couple of dozen years or more. In fact, in more than one way, Mickelson is better than he was at the 2004 Masters, when he won his first of his now six majors. He held off an admittedly beaten-up Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner nearly 20 years younger than Mickelson.
And this sudden shift in the golf landscape is causing conversations no one thought could occur even a week ago. The U.S. Open will be played in three weeks, and Mickelson, who turns 51 on June 16, the day before the Open begins, believes his name is worth mentioning.
It also means that Steve Stricker, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, must now add a name – a big one – to his list of candidates for the fall matches at Whistling Straits. And not for assistant captain, a position for which Mickelson no doubt would have been invited, in preparation for his imminent captaincy, perhaps as soon as 2023.
Since 1991, only five American PGA champions – John Daly (1991), Mark Brooks (1996), Rich Beem (2002), Shaun Micheel (2003) and Jason Dufner (2013) – did not make the next Ryder Cup team, although Dufner was on the 2012 squad. So, is Mickelson now a lock for one of Stricker’s six picks?
As with nearly everything that involves the newest PGA Championship winner, the answer is, of course, complicated.
The Mickelson image is conflicted at times. Fans love him, and televised golf is more than mildly enamored. Former PGA Tour player Colt Knost, who did some on-course commentary for CBS at the PGA, was seen giving Mickelson a bro-hug in the championship’s aftermath, as did a prominent big-city golf writer who was pictured on Golf Channel’s cameras.
Yet, there are glaring issues. In 2012, Mickelson was caught up in an insider-trading scheme that involved the stock of Dean Foods and its chairman, Thomas Davis, who revealed company financial secrets to Billy Walters, perhaps the biggest sports gambler in Las Vegas.
Walters tipped Mickelson, who wound up making about $1 million in profit from what amounted to illegal stock trades. Mickelson was not charged with a crime nor did he testify at Walters’ trial. The only punishment, if you can call it that, was that Mickelson was required to return his profits.
However, Mickelson paid Walters $1.95 million in September 2012 to cover a gambling debt and had paid similar debts to Walters in the past, according to a sworn statement by Mickelson’s business manager.
After Mickelson slapped a moving ball on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills during the third round of the 2018 U.S. Open on his 48th birthday, displaying his level of maturity, he got away with a two-stroke penalty when he should have been, by all rights, disqualified. At best, it was a slap in the USGA’s face.
Then, two weeks ago, the USGA – which usually has a long memory – extended a special exemption to Mickelson for the U.S. Open, at which he has finished second six times and was not otherwise qualified. Mickelson went to great pains in February 2020 to say that he would refuse an exemption if offered, calling it a “sympathy spot.” But 10 days ago, he put on his favorite pair of flip-flops and semi-graciously accepted. As it turns out, Mickelson and the USGA are off the hook because the PGA victory qualified Mickelson for this Open and the next four.
The South Course at Torrey Pines, site of this year’s Open, was renovated before the 2008 U.S. Open by Rees Jones. Mickelson was openly critical of Jones’ work and skipped the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey in 2019 for the first time in 28 years.
On Sunday evening, however, Mickelson revealed that he would take off the two weeks before the Open and spend much of that time doing extensive prep work at Torrey Pines, particularly on the greens and perhaps on his attitude toward the South Course, which also could use some renovation.
“I do believe that I believe that if I stay sharp mentally I can play well at Torrey Pines,” he said Sunday night. “I know that I'm playing well, and this could very well be my last really good opportunity … to win a U.S. Open. So, I'm going to put everything I have into it.”
The story of Mickelson’s physical and mental transformation is about to be added to the volumes of golf legend, if it hasn’t happened already. He started to remake his body and began with a six-day fast, drinking a coffee blend that he’s turned into a business: Coffee For Wellness.
He lost 15 pounds in 10 days but won’t say how much total weight he lost. Neither will he reveal the details of his diet. He went into the gym and got leaner and stronger, photo-bombing Instagram with the massive size of his calves. The result was that he is longer off the tee than ever.
The final piece was the remaking of his mind. He had complained of a lack of focus for an entire round of golf, a common condition of players his age. But he dove deeply into meditation but wouldn’t share his methods, preferring not to sound “too spiritual.”
I'm just making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus,” he said after Friday’s second round at the PGA. “I might try to play 36, 45 holes in a day and try to focus on each shot so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn't feel like it's that much.
“I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating, but I'm trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because as I've gotten older, it's been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.”
However, one aspect of Mickelson’s personality needed no alteration. There’s a lot of kid in Mickelson, even at his age, and he has the competitive urges of someone half his age. He’s unafraid to talk smack to anyone at any time, even Tiger Woods, and is famous for his Tuesday practice-round gambling games, which can run into five figures.
“My desire to play is the same,” he said. “I've never been driven by exterior things. I've always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete, I love playing the game. I love having opportunities to play against the best at the highest level. That's what drives me, and I think … the belief that I could still do it inspired me to work harder.”
But in the midst of all the dizzying celebratory madness, he found a moment for perspective – to a point.
“It's very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win … if I'm being realistic,” he said Sunday night. “But it's also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run, I don't know.”
Even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t tell us. Not the whole thing, anyway.
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