LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | For a guy with millions of dollars, a gorgeous family, a Hollywood smile, three Masters trophies, a PGA Championship, 40 PGA Tour victories, his own jet and who knows what all else, Phil Mickelson’s greatest attribute may be how utterly human he is. Once in a while, he screws up. Needing a par to win, he double bogeys the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open by thinking he couldn’t possibly mess it up. He made a wisecrack about Tiger Woods playing with inferior equipment. And, most recently, he popped off about how his tax bill is getting so high that he may be forced to move away from his native California. It’s one thing to chop up a golf tournament. It’s something else to suggest publicly that the government – both the feds and the cash-strapped state of California – is taking too much from the estimated $50 million or so you earned last year when, you may have heard, times have been hard for a while for most people. Mickelson being Mickelson, he answered a question with his heart more than his head. He’s done it before on any number of subjects and it’s one of the reasons why he’s so popular. Mickelson isn’t built to play defense. He has the courage of his convictions. Not everything Mickelson says has been polished into mundane cliches. He speaks his mind. Sometimes to a fault. It’s like a marriage. With Mickelson, you take the whole package. For better or worse, richer or … “I’ve said some stupid things in the past that have caused a media uproar before. It’s part of my life and I’ll deal with it,” Mickelson said. Mickelson knew he had stepped into a mess long before he walked into the media center last Wednesday at Torrey Pines to face a room overstuffed with reporters and columnists waiting to hear him explain himself. There was a chance he could make things worse. Rich guy whining about his taxes because he doesn’t have enough money left over to buy into his hometown San Diego Padres. But Mickelson made it better. He did what others in the public eye should do more often. He took the blame for a problem he created, admitted his error in judgment and did it not with spite but with the right touch of humility. Relating it to his spectacular collapse on the last hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at
Winged Foot, Mickelson deftly played himself out of trouble. “I made a big mistake talking about this stuff publicly and I shouldn’t have done that,” Mickelson said. Now if he can just get back to the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open with a one-stroke lead … Mickelson didn’t back off his premise that new tax laws have hit him particularly hard. He’s right about that. His federal tax rate jumped to 39.6 percent. His California tax rate jumped from 10 percent to 13.3. That’s a tax increase of 7.9 percent in three months according to a CNBC report. Does 62 percent of his income go to taxes as he originally suggested? Only if he doesn’t have sharp people handling his money, multiple experts say. It’s probably closer to 50 percent going to taxes. Still, taxes get everyone’s attention and almost never in a good way. “I’ve never had a problem paying my fair share,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know what that is right now.” Fair enough. Tiger Woods made no secret of the fact he moved to Florida to escape California taxes when he turned pro in the mid1990s. “I moved out of here back in ‘96 for that reason,” Woods said. The weather isn’t the only reason so many Tour players call Arizona, Texas and Florida home. Coincidentally, none of those places have state income taxes to go with their abundant sunshine. Mickelson apologized for being “insensitive” in going public without taking into account how his frustrations might sound to a family struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Without changing his message, Mickelson changed his tone and it made all the difference. Mickelson paused Wednesday when he was asked about using his celebrity to be an agent of change, the question suggesting that perhaps he was the kind of person to speak out about high taxes. “I don’t think that’s necessarily me,” Mickelson said. Through the Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation and other initiatives, Mickelson has done substantial work in and around the San Diego area. His generosity in moments big and small is undeniable. He has volunteered to redesign Torrey Pines’ North Course free of charge when he could have commanded a huge check for a city-funded project projected to cost more than $8 million. Mickelson grew up in San Diego, his family lives here and Amy’s family moved to the area. To Mickelson, it’s home. It’s where he wants to stay. You can’t blame him for that.