Phil Mickelson has the flu. Or at least he had the flu, a 10-day doozy that nearly forced him to withdraw from his first start of 2013, Bill Clinton’s star-studded Humana Challenge. He’s still nasally and a touch weak, but no matter. On this perfect Thursday morning at La Quinta Country Club in the desert east of Los Angeles, Lefty is working the scene like Sinatra in a cocktail lounge. In dark slacks, a gray sweater and his familiar KPMG visor, he strolls onto a practice range bustling with pros and nervy amateurs alike. Fans stare. Mickelson smiles and nods. Nods and smiles. “Seth, great to see you,” he says to former Deutsche Bank rainmaker Seth Waugh, who is warming up at the near end of the range.
Further down the line, Mickelson finds an opening next to his Hollywood pal Craig T. Nelson. As the pair beat balls toward the jagged peaks of the Santa Rosa Mountains, they yap away—about TV shows, the secret to golf (“If you know how to chip,” Mickelson says, “it makes the game so much easier”), and a possible dinner date at Mickelson’s home for the week, the swank Madison Club (“I’ll be in sweats,” Mickelson warns).
Twenty minutes later Lefty is on the first tee. He smokes a drive, then strolls lockstep up the fairway with 7-handicap Bill Kubly, one of the two amateurs in Mickelson’s group.
“So Bill,” Mickelson begins, “how did you get into the landscape-architecture business?”
When Mickelson takes the stage at any given Tour stop, you know exactly what to expect: hat-tips and high-fives, loose tee shots and dazzling flop shots. Of course, you also have no clue what’s coming—a 61, an 81, a tutorial on tax rates—these days more than ever. Mickelson turns 43 in June. He can still obliterate courses, as he did during his 28-under blitz of TPC Scottsdale in February, his 41st Tour win. But in this, his 22nd season on Tour—and three years removed from his last major title—how much longer he will continue to pull green-jacketed rabbits out of his hat is a reasonable question to ponder.
In the last four decades, just five players 43 or older have won a major, and none since Ben Crenshaw in 1995. Lefty is still long, but in 2012, for the first time in his career, he finished outside the top 50 in driving distance, losing more than five yards per poke year-on-year. In search of a jolt on the greens, he has alternatively toyed with a belly putter, a putterhead adorned with zebra stripes, and a “claw” putting grip. Last year he dropped out of the top 20 in the world for the first time since 1996. (He's now 5th.) How long he will continue finding joy in tinkering and grinding and recalibrating with Butch Harmon and The Daves (Pelz and Stockton) is anybody’s guess.
“‘What Will Phil Do Next?’ was probably the best advertising line ever, wasn’t it?” says Geoff Ogilvy, the beneficiary of the signature did-Phil-really-just-do-that moment, at Winged Foot in 2006. “Nobody knows. He’s unreadable.”
“I could see him just trying to play the majors and being ready a few times a year,” says Mickelson’s longtime Tour buddy Scott Verplank. “But I think he needs golf to distract him from all the other things he’s thinking about.”
Those things include a robust portfolio of business and philanthropic interests that fuel what one of Mickelson’s friends describes as his “perpetually active mind.” In January, Mickelson hinted that he was planning to move his family—wife Amy and their three kids—from suburban San Diego to a tax-friendlier locale. The Mickelsons have health concerns, too, namely Amy’s fight against breast cancer and Phil’s psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that he counters with a strict diet and injections of Enbrel, a drug Mickelson counts among his many sponsors.
Underpinning all this is the question of what motivates Mickelson today given that his legacy—four majors, an estimated $60 million in annual earnings, autograph-signer extraordinaire—is already firmly cemented. “Is he going to be the 12th-best player of all time? Or the 8th-best?” says Jim Strickland, a teammate of Mickelson’s at Arizona State University who still plays regularly with Mickelson during Lefty’s visits to Scottsdale. “Does he win more majors and tie the Watsons and Trevinos—that’s a special group. Is that something that drives him? It’s hard to know what’s really ticking inside Phil.”
It would be nice to explore that theme more deeply with Mickelson, but despite his modern-day-Arnie aura, he rarely grants interviews. “Phil hasn’t done a sit-down in three years and has said repeatedly that he has no intention of ending his streak,” his publicist, T.R. Reinman, wrote in an e-mail. So you settle for Plan B, pestering Mickelson as he enters the La Quinta C.C. parking lot flanked by state troopers. It’s a desperate, absurd attempt to better understand the man.
“I love what I do,” he says when asked what keeps him focused on golf. “I love competing. I love the challenge of it. I love trying to get better, and because I love what I do there’s never a motivational problem, there’s never a work-ethic problem.”
Jim Mackay, who has carried Mickelson’s bag for all but one of his Tour wins, expounds: “He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met. Last night he was playing till dark against a couple of guys at the Madison Club for a couple of lemonades. If you play him in Ping-Pong, if you’re playing him for a dollar, he’s going to dive on the floor to return a shot. That’s just the way he’s built. Motivation will never be a problem for Phil.”
Expressing himself is also never a problem for Mickelson. His aversion to interviews aside, he is in fact among the most loquacious players on Tour, and happy to opine at length during press conferences about the nuances of a course setup or the flaws of the FedEx Cup. His media savvy was tested earlier this year at Torrey Pines near San Diego when he faced reporters just days after he had drawn sharp criticism for bemoaning his “62, 63 percent” tax rate. On the day of Mickelson’s press conference at Torrey, as he departed his Rancho Santa Fe home in the predawn darkness, Amy asked him how he was planning to handle the impending inquisition. “I have no idea,” he said.
That afternoon, though, when he finally met the press, he had a very good idea. Without retracting his remarks, he apologized, with equal parts humility and humor, for uttering them publicly. With a few nimble responses, Miserly Mickelson had swiftly recast himself as Lovable Lefty.
One of the more paradoxical pieces of the Mickelson puzzle is that, despite his romance with the fans and aplomb around the media, a perception persists that he harbors some dark secret or unsavoriness. “It reminds me a lot of what I’ve read about Joe DiMaggio,” says Tim Buckman, who was vice president of global communications for Callaway, Mickelson’s equipment sponsor, from 2007-2012. “There was always a similar fascination as to what was happening behind the scenes.”
In Mickelson’s case, that curiosity stems from anonymous player polls that have painted him as unpopular among his peers; salacious gossip about his personal life; and Mickelson’s well-documented
affinity for gambling. A more recent source of conjecture has been Mickelson’s health. One morning just before the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he awoke to searing pain in his Achilles and the back of his legs, which was alleviated only by rigorous stretching. He tied for fourth at that Open, but days later, the pain migrated and intensified. Doctors diagnosed him with psoriatic arthritis and prescribed Enbrel, and although his symptoms retreated, speculation about his condition hasn’t.
After a brilliant start to his 2012, including a win at Pebble and strong showings at Riviera and Augusta, Mickelson fizzled. He withdrew from the Memorial, citing fatigue; closed with a 78 at the U.S Open; then missed the cut at the British Open. He rebounded later in the year and, in 2013, has fluctuated between sublime and so-so.
“Since he’s announced to the world that he has psoriatic arthritis, he’s more inconsistent than he’s ever been,” says Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo, who himself suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Nobilo won five times on the European Tour and once on the PGA Tour before his condition forced him into retirement. “You have to put that down to health. You can say it’s [waning] interest and all that, but when you watch him play, he hits shots that he would never hit, even for Phil. There’s no question that he’s going through some of the things that I did.”
Mickelson, though, has a couple of things going for him: He caught his arthritis early, and he’s found a medication that works for him. Mackay reports that in the two and half years that Mickelson has been on Enbrel, “he has never once turned to me and said, ‘Oh, this or that is sore.’” That might continue to be the case, or it might not. Drugs like Enbrel can lose their effectiveness, says Dr. Mark Lebwohl, chairman of the National Psoriasis Foundation Medical Board, and because they suppress the immune system, “they can make you susceptible to infection.” Which is not something Mickelson’s camp takes lightly.
“I think his stamina is very important. When he plays too many days in a row, or when he’s on the road, he risks getting his immune system knocked out,” says Steve Loy, Mickelson’s longtime agent. Mickelson, a legendary lover of all things greasy, also must adhere to a low-fat diet. “Like today, we had an egg-white omelet with lots of vegetables, and some nine-grain toast,” Loy says at La Quinta. “That wasn’t the case in his college days when he’d have, you know, half a dozen eggs and pile it on with some hash browns.
“It’s definitely a factor,” Loy says of the arthritis, “but when Phil’s right, he’s as good as he’s ever been.”