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In Praise Of Phil

PITTSFORD, NEW YORK | Even then he stood out. Even then he was the centre of attraction. Phil Mickelson was the American player everyone wanted to see at the 1991 Walker Cup. He was tall, tanned and thin and he had already won a pro tournament, the Northern Telecom Open. He was a psychology student at Arizona State University, though student might be a rather loose word. His absence from campus led him to joke during the Walker Cup: “I attend university when I am in the same state.” That was Mickelson’s first and last Walker Cup. He turned professional the next summer to a drum roll and trumpet fanfare, not to mention one contract said to be worth $500,000 and a signing-on fee of $1 million. He was a few days past his 22nd birthday. “I have seen the future and I’m frightened,” one U.S. reporter noted after attending Mickelson’s first news conference as a pro. Mickelson won five tournaments in his first three years and then found himself slowly being eclipsed by the emergence of Tiger Woods when Woods was running events such as the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and the 2000 U.S. Open by 15. Good as Mickelson was, he couldn’t match this sort of golf. As Woods was putting his rivals to the sword, he was also poking fun at Mickelson for his agricultural-looking walk, his relentlessly attacking style of golf even when victory would have come if he had been more cautious, and the wide grin which looked as though it was plastered onto his face. Woods also noted that while he was prepared to travel the world and be considered truly a world player, Mickelson was not. While Woods sweated for hours each day in the gym, Mickelson did not. Dazzled by Woods’ success, his fans anointed Woods the true American hero, which had the effect of condemning Mickelson, his greatest American rival, to be the anti-hero. How the tables have been turned. Mickelson plays golf with a smile on his face while Woods does not. Mickelson is the most popular American golfer while Woods is not. When Mickelson walked to the first tee for the last round of the PGA, he was 19 strokes off the pace yet you’d have thought he was leading. He was applauded every step he took from the putting to green to the tee. “Too bad they don’t like Phil,” a state trooper said drily. Mickelson, his mother, and Amy, his wife, have come through numerous health scares – cancer struck his mother and his wife and he suffered from psoriatic arthritis. Yet Mickelson’s demeanour and his conduct when dealing with these illnesses were such that he inspired admiration. He rarely talked about them and even when he did, he never complained. When he heard of other sufferers, he helped, a phone call here, a donation there. All done without fuss. Mickelson has won two major championships in the past four years, Woods has not won any. Woods is admired but Mickelson is loved in the way that in the early years Nicklaus was admired but Palmer was loved, Bernhard Langer was admired but Seve Ballesteros was loved. Oh, yes, one more thing. Mickelson is the champion golfer for 2013. Mickelson is a man who is loyal and prizes that quality in others. In a world full of changing personnel, he has had the same wife, manager and caddie for all his professional career. He is blatant in pursuit of the family dream, openly devoted to his wife and their three children. He even left Merion, on the east coast of the U.S. the week of the U.S. Open, to fly home to the west coast for one night to be at an important event for his 13-year-old daughter. In July 2002, Mickelson climbed aboard a private plane in San Diego, one bound for Britain and the Open at Muirfield.


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