Phil Mickelson is not averse to a wager. But it’s the PGA Tour that will be more at risk if he doesn’t put the game on his back during the coming months, which are promising to be the professional game’s most awkward time, maybe ever. The indefinite loss of Tiger Woods to the Tour while the golf world tries to look the other way and pretend it didn’t happen is Mickelson’s best chance to become the game’s most popular player.
All he had to do was show up at Kapalua for the Tour’s season opener, the SBS Championship. He didn’t have to win or even play well. He just needed to be there to serve as a reminder that golf is bigger than one player and that if the game needs someone to carry the banner of what is good and right about golf, Mickelson should be that person.
Yet he neither made the trip nor the effort, and in the bargain might have missed a golden opportunity. Mickelson usually shuts down competitively in the United States each year after the Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup and/or Presidents Cup, and doesn’t show up on the PGA Tour again until San Diego in February. He should have made an exception this year. Golf needs Mickelson to be the face of the game if not just for now, but for the foreseeable future.
With just a little effort, Mickelson can be his era’s Arnold Palmer. The great columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote years ago that God whispered into Jack Nicklaus’ ear and told him he’d be the best player who ever lived and then turned to whisper in Palmer’s ear, “But they will love you more.”
Mickelson will never be Woods’ equal inside the ropes, but he can certainly be a better representative, particularly now when golf needs him most. Every time he comes off the course, we see pictures of him kissing his wife, Amy – who is battling breast cancer – and his children. It’s as wholesome a moment as we see on golf television.
Mickelson “gets it” better than any player on Tour, much like Palmer. He easily signs more autographs than any other pro, perhaps more than the top 10 combined. He certainly signs many more autographs than does Woods, who consistently signs as few as possible and considers the chore, well, a chore. Mickelson smiles easily, even under the heat, and fist bumps and slaps five with fans whether he’s on the first or the 18th tee, on Wednesday or Sunday.
He understands his role in the higher order of golf and works hard to give back, whether on the course or in his charity work off the course through his foundation. But he lives in a glass house and has had his own share of difficult reports that have dogged him in recent years.
In 2000, he is reported to have placed a $20,000 bet in Las Vegas before the NFL season on the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl. Anybody who made that exact bet cashed in at 28-1 for $560,000. In 2001, he is said to have wagered $20,000 on the Arizona Diamondbacks winning the World Series, giving Lefty a $720,000 payday. He was rumored to have been deeply in debt in offshore Internet gambling and as a result, announced in 2003 that he was giving up gambling altogether.
Neither the rumors nor the swearing off of sports betting hurt Mickelson’s reputation, nor did it damage his fan and commercial appeal. He came out clean and in spite of gentle reminders, Mickelson’s penchant for gambling rarely even comes to mind any more. He wasn’t forgiven, mostly because people didn’t think he did anything that needed forgiveness.
Instead, the public has embraced Mickelson all the more. For whatever reason, he is New York’s adopted golfer, as evidenced by the past two U.S. Opens at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, just outside Manhattan. It sounds like a Giants game at the Black when Mickelson hits a good shot or holes a putt. And it’s not just in New York. Mickelson is admired and cheered all over the nation both for his style of play and his sense of what fans need from their players.
If not Mickelson, then who? Steve Stricker is the world No. 3, but as nice a guy as he is, Stricker is not big enough to carry professional golf on his shoulders. Nor is anyone else in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking. The economic crisis is not over for golf and the game needs all the ambassadors it can muster. Golf cannot afford to carry on without a leader during a time when its best player has every chance to be booed when he returns.
Where have you gone, Phil Mickelson? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Golf is calling Mickelson out of the clubhouse on short rest. It’s time to give the ball to the left-hander.