Phil Mickelson has quietly used his position to better the lives of a wide variety of people

David Finn, Phil Mickelson
JOHN MUNSON/THE STAR-LEDGER
MAKE MY DAY: The Finns (opposite) say Phil's genuine gestures at the 2005 PGA made David feel special.

On March 23, 2003, a son and a larger purpose were born to Phil Mickelson. His boy, Evan, didn't take a breath during his first seven minutes outside the womb, and Phil stood over him in the delivery room pleading, "Breathe, Evan, breathe."

On the other side of the room Phil's college sweetheart, Amy, had ruptured an artery in her uterus during the delivery and was in danger of bleeding to death. While his wife and son fought for their lives, Phil was swept into a hallway by the medical staff. He sat alone on a bench, his head in his hands, praying. Then he made a covenant that if his loved ones were saved, he would lead a more purposeful life.

Evan and Amy rallied -- she would later beat breast cancer -- and Phil has made good on his promise. On Monday night, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, in recognition of his four major championships and 40 career PGA Tour victories (ninth all time), but if there was a hall dedicated to good deeds he would have been enshrined long ago. He has touched people's lives through random acts of kindness and bold philanthropic initiatives, all of it done quietly, which is the way Mickelson prefers. "He does a lot of stuff I know nothing about," says Jim Mackay, his close friend and careerlong caddie.

Mickelson, 41, has always enjoyed a deeply personal connection with his fans, thanks to his interaction on the course and the endless autographs he signs when the round is over. (He is also beloved in the service industry because of a penchant for dispensing $100 tips.) In the wake of Evan's harrowing delivery, Mickelson has become an agent of change, beginning with an eponymous foundation that does not solicit outside contributions. Mickelson is a science nerd and the son of an Air Force pilot, so supporting education and providing for military veterans have become twin passions. In recent years he has found other creative ways to give back. "I'm lucky to be in a position to help," Mickelson says, and he'd like to leave it at that. It is up to others to tell of his impact outside of golf.

THE FAN
David Finn was born in the wrong body. The 19-year-old from River Edge, N.J., suffers from a mitochondrial disorder that has left his limbs shriveled and his mouth unable to form words. But a broken body can't suppress the powerful spirit within. David's bright blue eyes convey intelligence and an eagerness to connect. He has a beatific smile and a honking laugh that supports a sophisticated sense of humor. "One of his teachers liked to say that David was the only kid who ever got his jokes," says his father, John. Attached to David's wheelchair is a piece of paper printed with a grid of the alphabet, allowing him to communicate by tapping out words with his crooked fingers. He was a determined enough student to make it through River Dell High, and on graduation day last June he was rewarded with a rousing standing ovation.

He has continued his education at Horizon School, which offers specialized curriculum for students with disabilities, as well as Bergen Community College. A point of emphasis for David is improving his ability to communicate. At Horizon he uses a touch-screen computer with a speaker that articulates whatever David is typing. Recently he was offering a demonstration for a visiting reporter. Asked how he was feeling, David patiently tapped out the perfect answer: "On the spot."

Later he was asked by his speech therapist, Brittany Arrington, "If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?" David could have chosen to dunk a basketball or slow-dance with Kate Upton or sing at Carnegie Hall. Instead he tapped, "Go to the Masters."

Pound for pound, David Finn might be the world's biggest golf fan. "He starts watching with the pregame show on Thursday and doesn't stop until there's a winner on Sunday night," says his mother, Vanessa.

David's love affair with the game began at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, a 45-minute drive from the family's house. During a Tuesday practice round David was parked in his wheelchair behind the 14th green when Mickelson came through. After putting out he walked over to David and said, "Hi, buddy, thanks for coming. Here's a souvenir for you." He laid an autographed glove in David's lap.

Says John, "So many people don't know how to act around the severely disabled. Pity is the worst possible emotion. The glove was a wonderful gesture, but what made that moment so meaningful was that Phil treated Dave like a normal kid, which is all he wants. Phil gets it. The ease and the grace he displayed says a lot about who he is."

Despite the challenges of navigating a rain-softened course, David insisted on following Mickelson for the rest of the week. Mickelson continued to acknowledge the presence of his newest fan with an occasional smile, a nod or a thumbs-up. He won that PGA with a 72nd-hole birdie, as David cheered him on from a ­handicapped seating area behind the green. It was a hugely important moment in Mickelson's career, as the victory validated his breakthrough at the previous year's Masters. Yet in the heady minutes immediately after his triumph Mickelson thought of a kid he barely knew. Mackay hustled over to say his boss was wondering if David would like to have a picture taken with the Wanamaker Trophy. The moment was recorded by the Newark Star-Ledger: Phil has the trophy in one hand, and the other is placed tenderly on the left shoulder of David, whose head is thrown back in ecstasy.

Thus began a friendship that endures to this day. Every year David and his parents attend the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship to root for Mickelson, and he invariably finds them in the gallery. David, in turn, has transformed his bedroom into a shrine to golf in general and Mickelson in particular. The signed glove is preserved behind glass. Above his bed is a 2007 Presidents Cup flag autographed by the U.S. team, while another wall displays a windbreaker from the 2010 Ryder Cup. (Mackay has been instrumental in procuring these souvenirs.) David loves to look through a tattered photo album of his PGA Tour adventures, which his three older sisters call The Book of Phil. The book also contains a picture from 2008, when Mackay came to the house for dinner.

For the upcoming summer vacation David is advocating that the family rent an RV and follow the Tour from town to town, a fanciful idea that his parents are considering. "We don't know what the future holds for Dave," says John. "It would be a great experience for all of us. The world is a nicer place when you're traveling with Dave. He brings out the best in people."

Still, the Finns are not immune to golf's cruelty. This year's Easter dinner was a little glum after Mickelson's triple bogey at the 4th hole cost him a shot at a fourth Masters victory. But David is very much looking forward to watching the telecast of the Hall of Fame ceremonies. Asked why he thought Mickelson was deserving of the honor, David spelled out an impressive response: "Phil is the Arnold Palmer of today." David's father gently chastised him for parroting something they had heard on Golf Channel. David thought a bit longer. With great determination, he tapped, "Phil was the first person to make me feel special."
 

Mirandi Squires
Kohjiro Kinno / SI
WITH CLASS: The science-minded Squires was impressed with Mickelson's passion for education.

 

THE TEACHER
At first blush, Mirandi Squires has not traveled very far in life. She grew up on the eastern edge of South Carolina, in Georgetown County, what was then a land of dirt roads and tobacco fields. Throughout high school she had a 9 p.m. curfew, and on the eve of her wedding, when she was 21, Mirandi had to be home by 11. The mother of three now commutes to Johnsonville, a two-stoplight town 25 minutes from that childhood home. But through her innovative teaching, Mirandi has brought a new frontier of ideas to Johnsonville Elementary School. In a state that in recent years has seen squabbles about creationism in the legislature and on textbook committees, Mirandi remains committed to what she calls "the magic of science. I want the kids to know that it can open up the world to them."

Her gifted and talented third-graders consider donning a lab coat and protective glasses a routine part of the school day. To drive home the point that sound is actually vibration, Mirandi recently had her students dip a tuning fork into a cup of water, leading to some very surprised, and very wet, kids. A lesson on composting has resulted in a plastic crate crawling with worms taking up residence in one corner of the classroom. To better understand scale, the kids made out of construction paper a 10-foot-tall Yeti that still looms over them. Mirandi does daily presentations that are run through the first iPad anyone in Johnsonville had ever seen.

"She's not afraid to go outside our little box and bring in new ideas, new methods," says Randy Meekins, Johnsonville Elementary's assistant principal. "It means so much to our kids. They're getting a world-class education right here in this tiny little town."

Mirandi is in her 24th year of teaching, but it was in 2009 that, she says, "I learned how to see things through a new lens." It all began when a student of hers, Erin Altman, was watching golf with her father. "We saw an ad for Phil Mickelson's ­teachers' academy," says Erin, "and I just knew Miss Squires had to go. It was like destiny."

Next thing Mirandi knew she was on an airplane for the first time, at age 42. Every summer the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy selects 600 teachers from around the country for a week of intensive math and science instruction. The academy has outposts in Houston, New Orleans and Jersey City. The trips are all-expenses-paid, and Mirandi was thrilled to have a view of the New York City skyline from her hotel suite. The teachers are given stacks of lesson plans and materials, with an emphasis on dynamic, hands-on learning. "Everything we were taught was to bring science and math to life," Mirandi says. A point of emphasis was encouraging students to keep a journal; in Johnsonville her kids keep notebooks bursting with diagrams, charts, chunks of prose and various materials they've glued to the pages.

Mirandi calls her time at the academy "life-altering," and a good deal of the inspiration came from mingling with the host. "When we got to meet Phil, it was obvious how passionate he is about education," she says. "He talked about how math and science are what keep American industry strong and allow us to compete with other countries. People like to say that children are our future, but Phil and his wife are actually making a real investment in them."

After returning from the academy Mirandi had the gumption to apply for a presidential teaching award; when she won, she used some of her prize money to invest in her iPad. She is the vice president–elect for the South Carolina Science Council and is also involved in a review of the state's science curriculum. "I feel it's my duty to take an active role and try to make a difference," she says.

Even as Mirandi effects change on the macro level, she continues to stimulate the kids in her class. "When Miss Squires says we're going to do a new lesson, we don't moan and groan, we're happy, because we know she is going to make it fun," says Lee Ann Tanner, a little pixie who says she wants to be a pharmacist.

"I didn't like math or science until I came to her class," says Sarah Baxley, an aspiring nurse. "Now they're my favorite subjects."

Mirandi tends to get misty at such testimonials. "Well, bless their little hearts," she coos. But for all the gentility of this Southern belle, she is not afraid to get her hands dirty in the name of science. After all, someone has to look after the worms in the compost bin.

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