CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | The legend was almost done. He trudged up the 18th fairway in the oppressive heat at the 1994 U.S. Open near his hometown, a kerchief around his neck and sweat dripping down his lined face.
The people were standing, all of them, cheering to the top of their lungs, saying their goodbyes as best they could to a man who always gave them his best shot at giving them thrills. And the legend wearily smiled.
The young one absorbed and wondered. The legend walked into the press building to another standing ovation from the writers, some of whom had covered him since the first day he turned professional. Something was streaming down the legend’s face as he haltingly spoke and this time it wasn’t perspiration.
The young one followed the legend down to the volunteer tent and watched in rapt attentiveness as the legend signed autographs, shook hands and thanked them all for their thankless effort.
That, the young one said to himself, is what I want to be.
Phil Mickelson is about to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and will join in that honor with the legend, Arnold Palmer. Mickelson is not a young one any longer but he has never strayed from his ambition that he firmly cemented in his own mind that day at Oakmont as a second-year pro on the PGA Tour.
Make no mistake and whether it is by design or not, Mickelson has become the modern-day Palmer, all the way from his almost shy but electric smile to his seeming unending charity work to his penchant for hitting the ball through trees to his willingness to sign more autographs than the next five Tour players put together.
Mickelson loves golf and the love is not unrequited. He is the most beloved active player in the game and, while Tiger Woods might get more attention and perhaps draws bigger galleries, it is Mickelson who has earned the admiration of his fans.
And he has the respect of those who came before. On Thursday of Masters week, Mickelson did something no other current player would ever even think of: He slipped on his green jacket and walked out to the first tee for the ceremonial first shot by Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. What made it all the more remarkable is that the ceremony was at 7 a.m., a full four hours before Mickelson’s starting time.
Mickelson is not the King and there will never be another. But surely he is the crown prince.
The legendary columnist Jim Murray once wrote, “God whispered in the ear of Jack Nicklaus and said, ‘You will be the greatest player who ever lived.’ And He whispered to Palmer, ‘But they will love you more.’ ”
The almighty surely said the same thing to Woods and Mickelson. And the divergence is striking. While Woods won’t look at another soul while he is playing, Mickelson makes eye contact, smiles back to those who smile first and gives golf balls to children as if he had a never-ending supply.
He will tirelessly sign autographs for an hour after his round, even in the rain, which he did at Quail Hollow a couple of years ago. Woods can’t get away from the autograph seekers fast enough.
“I love what I do,” Mickelson said at the Quail Hollow Club just prior to the beginning of the Wells Fargo Championship. “I love coming out to the golf course and playing some of the best courses in the world in perfect condition, competing for a living. It’s one of my favorite things to do, whether it’s for a huge purse or just among friends.
“And the way the people have treated me and my family over the years, it’s very easy to get excited to see everyone because they’ve been wonderful.”
Sound like anyone you know?
One of the reasons we love Mickelson so much is that he plays the game with such youthful, reckless abandon, seemingly not caring about the outcome. The shot is always the thing and whether you have the stones to take it on.
“You’ve got to play without fear,” he said. “You’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to happen. You have to deal with losing. It’s part of the Tour. Out of 156 guys each week, one person is going to win, so 155 lose. But you can’t worry about that. You’ve got to let it brush off when things don’t go your way.
“But rather than play tentatively or with concern or fear or let somebody else hand it to you, I’ve always liked to try to get the tournament in my control where if I execute the shots I’m able to pull off the victory as opposed to letting somebody else hand it to me. I think it’s more that desire of trying to control my own destiny than let somebody else handle it, which has forced me to play aggressively.”
Palmer played golf without fear because his father, Deacon, drilled into his head to give every swing, every shot all that he had. Or face the wrath afterward. Mickelson took a more cerebral approach.
“I know that when I was a psychology major in college, one of the ways to face a fear or to get over a fear was to tackle it head on,” he said. “There were a few different ways, but the one that I felt was the best was if you don’t like snakes, go hang out with snakes a bunch and eventually you’re going to get over the fear.
“I never felt comfortable flying so I went and got my pilot’s license. I never felt comfortable with being in an awkward situation, so I took up martial arts. I just always want to take on my fears head on.”
Mickelson is 42, headed into the World Golf Hall of Fame with 40 PGA Tour victories, including four majors. He doesn’t quite have the playing record that Palmer had, but by the time Palmer was Mickelson’s age, the days in which he could still be competitive were dwindling.
Mickelson, on the other hand, is still a threat to win every time he tees it up, even in majors. “I feel like these next five years could be the best of my career,” he said.
While the young one heads for the sunset, he will always chase the lengthening shadows of the legend. In all the ways that matter, there could be no higher calling.