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.”
Mickelson’s friends say he rarely mentions his condition. “When he’s not playing his best, I’ll start thinking about it,” says Rob Mangini, another friend and former ASU teammate of Mickelson’s. “But when he’s playing ‘Phil golf,’ it’s not even in my mind. Knowing him, he’ll figure out whatever circumstances he has and then work around it. He won’t dwell on any kind of negative. It’s just the way the guy thinks.”
Mickelson thinks big, too: about his charities, his partnerships, his investments, his pet projects. The scope of his off-course work is broad. He ardently supports education and the military. He is working pro bono on a redesign of the North Course at Torrey Pines and on developing golf academies in China. He is an investor in a burger joint (Five Guys) and a Broadway hit (Glengarry Glen Ross, starring Al Pacino). He played himself in an episode of HBO’s Entourage. At the end of 2012, he was on the cusp of buying a piece of the San Diego Padres before an eleventh-hour change of heart.
“I’ll bet he’s involved in so many different LLCs that we don’t know about,” says Strickland, his college buddy. “I think he’ll be very business-minded and very philanthropic moving forward.”
Forward to what, though? “He certainly has the wherewithal to do anything he wants, to align himself with whoever he chooses,” Strickland says. “I think he really enjoys the financial world. I think he loves stocks and making a determination of which way a stock or a company may go.”
In college, Mickelson could cram for exams the night before taking them and regularly deliver As and Bs. “I don’t think anyone else on our team was capable of doing that,” says Keith Sbarbaro, a college teammate of Mickelson’s who is now TaylorMade’s vice president of tour operations.
“Phil just happens to be a golfer who’s successful, but if he was a lawyer, he’d be successful,” Sbarbaro adds. “He’d be making tons of money no matter what he chose to do. I’ve always joked that he could be governor of California.”
Governor Philip Alfred Mickelson. It certainly has a ring to it. How about it, Lefty? A new start in politics?
“With what’s been going on, somebody’s got to step in and do something, and yet I don’t want it to be me,” Mickelson says as he and Mackay pack up after a first-round 72 at the Humana. Three days later, Mickelson will elaborate on this very topic, delivering a lively commentary on his taxes that will make international news. But at this moment he’s just another taxpayer pondering his and his country’s future.
“There’s a lot of challenges affecting the long-term successes of the nation, and anybody who’s read up on it has got to be concerned,” he continues. “I certainly am. Whether it’s at the state level in California or at the national level, somebody’s got to do something. But I’m not the guy.”
With that, Mickelson disappears into his vehicle and eases out of the parking lot under the warm desert sun. Opening day of another season is in his rearview mirror, but you can’t help wonder what lies on the road ahead.