Phil in Purgatory

Carrie Boretz

THEY READ LIKE HANDWRITTEN notes from a bursting-proud grandmother. "Your beautiful children are very fortunate to have such a loving, devoted father. Congratulations on your life, Phil! You are most deserving."

Or like cards that your sister might select from the "Encouragement" rack at the Hallmark store.

"LUV YA, Phil! Can't wait for your next tournament. I enjoy watching you so much, my stomach is in knots all the time because I want so much for you to win!"

They read like birthday cards from mom.

"I'm so proud of you, Phil. You work hard at this game but you also show others what life is all about. You're the greatest guy in the world!"

And like secret missives from a clandestine lover. "I can't stop sending messages to you! I don't know what's wrong with me!"

But these cloying words addressed to Phil Mickelson are the schoolgirl gushings of grown men who have never met him, grown men who, regardless of not knowing him beyond what they read in magazines and see on television and scour for on the Internet, think Phil Mickelson is a paragon among human beings. They tell him so endlessly on his web site, and they tell him about their own lives — how many kids, who celebrated a birthday, who died — as though they're certain he checks it daily, and certain he cares. Does he? "We're on the site from time to time," he says. "We update it often."

His message-board fans tell him he's not just a great golfer, but "the greatest guy in the world." Perhaps the Dalai Lama's e-mail inbox was all filled up that day.

Those words and more, as though June 18, 2006, played out the way it should have. As though, on the final hole of the U.S. Open, Mickelson didn't hit a tent, and didn't ding a tree, and instead did something right besides go home. His own words about himself were not so blind: "I am such an idiot." This was after the world saw the image of Mickelson, touted by this magazine as The Man Who Could Be Number One, crouched on the green, hands on his head, hiding a face that might've been poker-red pissed, or puckered for a childish wail. The man who might h ave been the new king, who just two months before had won his second Masters — who should have won the U.S. Open, then the British, then maybe the PGA — played the final hole of the major that means the most to him like a blind bull in a china shop, like The Man Who's Comfortable Being Number Two.

Here Tiger, I seem to be in your way; allow me to step aside and clear the path for you.

Yes, Mickelson really blew it. Endorsed the winner's check over to an unknown Australian who held his hands out for the victory in disbelief. Holy s---, Phil, you imagine Geoff Ogilvy must have been thinking. I mean, are you sure?

"It was weird," Ogilvy says. "A very strange way to win a golf tournament."

It must have been an even stranger way to lose one.

HAD YOU been sitting across from Phil Mickelson in a tent at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January, where the cold winds made you doubt you were in the middle of the Palm Springs desert, you'd have noticed a second anomaly: This amazing athlete before you, 30 pounds lighter and better-looking in person, is not the wrecked man you may have expected to see. His smiles aren't as fake as you might've heard. Studied, maybe. But fake?

That's a stretch. And really, he doesn't have that much to hide. It's not like it was his last tournament. Or his first major.

"I've won three majors now," says Mickelson. "So it doesn't quite feel so desperate."

But the rest of us have made it seem that way. Desperate. Last chance. Blow up.

Still, take a moment to pity Phil Mickelson, if for no other reason than the fact that his attempt to forge and bulletproof a legend has been concurrent with the achievement of that goal by the best player in history. If there had been no Tiger Woods, then Mickelson might be the one with a mantel full of major trophies and a Christmas stocking hanging from the Claret Jug. For the longest time, Mickelson's role in the sweeping drama of golf history seemed destined to be that of the loveable loser: a man knock-kneed with vulnerability — to his own mind, to some underlying humanness that made him more like the guys you play with on Saturdays than a superstar you'll never meet.

But then in 2004, Mr. Runner-Up won the Masters. Bang. A shot put by a regular guy that sailed into Olympic territory and, for the moment, quelled the notion that Mickelson had the skill but couldn't contain the glory. That was the start of a bull run. Suddenly, Phil Mickelson was a bona-fide contender. That smiley face, that born caricature, was no longer that of your college roommate, but the smile of a hero who'd won the crown taking his sweet-assed time to shimmy his rear onto the throne. Carve my name on that trophy, times 10, and call In-N-Out Burger, tell them I'M ON MY WAY.

With Tiger in his most fallow period following the illness and eventual death of his father, Mickelson was a flame-thrower at an Exxon station. In back-to back weeks he blew away the field by 13 shots in the BellSouth Classic and won the Masters, and then tied for fourth at the Memorial. He was within a spark's fly of permanently fire-branding his all-American name on the trophies, on the books, on history even beyond just golf history. Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson. Tiger Woods? Yeah, he had a blazing 10-year run, but he was no Phil Mickelson.

IN LIFE, so goes the saying, when one door closes, another opens. Sure, there's the chance of another open door, there always will be. But Mickelson's first big one disappeared into a magician's trapdoor in the Winged Foot ground on a wet-hot day in June. It was sad for a million reasons, not the least of them being that, with Woods returning to form, the golf world was on the brink of its best rivalry since Nicklaus-Watson.

Had he taken care of business at the Open — by far the hardest of the big four to win — it would have been three majors in a row for Mickelson, a feat that would have left him feeling especially invulnerable. It was all right there, everything he'd dreamed of since he was a kid, and he shot it to hell with a jackrabbit trigger. Rushed it and flushed it. Lost himself on that 18th green, the 72nd circle of hell, in what must be said is the game's biggest collapse ever in terms of what was at stake — not just the U.S. Open, but the all-American dreams of a young boy.

At age 3, Mickelson tried to run away from home because his parents didn't think he was old enough to join his dad for a weekend golf game. Approaching the final green of his first round of golf at age 4, he cried because he knew that the 18th hole meant the round was over. He asked for a trophy case when he was 10, even though he had yet to win any trophies.

Golf critics like to label that sort of precociousness as "being predisposed to greatness" and "possessing of true spirit." And when a gilded run ends as Mickelson's so dashingly did at the Open, golf critics (where critics are here defined as lauders and supporters) like to turn it around. The fact that Mickelson will live to play again is testament to his "unbreakable spirit." The fact he pulled driver on the 18th tee when he didn't need to was Mickelson being "wild and wacky, a gambler who gave into himself yet again," the sort of wounded but worthy man Hollywood would make a movie about.

ASKED AFTER the U.S. Open whether he was frustrated with his student, Mickelson's short-game guru Dave Pelz says, "Frustrated, no. I disagreed. I would have hit a 4-wood off the last four holes. But then, I'm not Phil Mickelson." And who in golf really is Phil Mickelson, with the cavalier, rodeosmile exception of, well, Phil Mickelson?

The teacher believes the loss was a good thing. "Losing, and the way he lost, was probably the best thing to ever happen to Phil," says Pelz. "You learn more from your defeats than you could ever learn from your victories." True enough, and any psychologist would agree, but can you really picture Mickelson sitting around the clubhouse, popping mixed nuts into his mouth, telling his caddie Bones, "Man, am I glad I blew that Open! High-five!"

Close friend Gary McCord is less understanding than Pelz. "Phil has never in his career thrown the field a bone like he did on the 18th at Winged Foot with the lead," McCord says candidly. "Even in his amateur days he never did anything like that. With his short game and knowledge of the finishing holes, I figured he could make 5 — at worst. He made worse. It was like watching the movie Borat, when [the title character] and his 400-pound producer, Azamat, did their ass-to-nose nude wrestling; I could not watch."

McCord couldn't watch. But everybody else did. There was Phil Mickelson, pinging a tent and then a tree. Like a slow-motion game of Pong, he was executing the obstacles. His third shot landed in the sand, the fourth waddled over the green and his last, desperate attempt to chip in didn't even come close.

The wild drive may have been a technical mistake, but the rest of the double-bogey 6? Not so much. Like a lamb that bites off its leg to make an easier gulp of the impending slaughter, Mickelson seemed to invite the disaster. He seemed to know it was over after his drive drifted left of the fairway.

The breakdown was mental. That's what Roland Carlstedt, Ph.D., of the American Board of Sport Psychology, believes from observing Mickelson's on-course personality. He says Mickelson has the traits of the gambler. "Addictions involve neuropsychological processes associated with lack of impulse control and inhibition of reward gratification seeking behavior," he says, "and the frontal lobes [of the brain] are heavily implicated in addictions, including gambling." The polls show that you, the people, agree. You're sure it was a mental face flop that wrecked Mickelson.

LET'S ASSUME it was mental and not technical, for the sake of argument. If we imagine it was a mental syncope that wrecked the round, we must address the very personality of the man behind the game.

Who is Mickelson, really? A cool guy, a gentleman perhaps, albeit one with a patina of frat-boy exultation, whom you might be able to imagine waking up on the floor of a University of Arizona dorm room, empty cans of cheap beer at his feet. Or, it must be ventured, is Mickelson living in a perpetual Halloween? Is that grinning mask of an imp hiding behind its Joker smile just another golf bore?

Asked to describe himself in one sentence, Mickelson says, "The left-handed player on Tour."

OK, but who's the off-course Phil, the guy who wrote a letter to journeyman pro Michael Clark II (who accused Mickelson of using wedges with illegal grooves) after the latter missed the cut: "Dear Mike: Thanks for your interest in my wedges. Good luck at Q-School. — Phil."

So who are you, Phil? "You'll have to ask someone else," he says. Fair enough. McCord says, "Phil's an interesting character. You just root for Phil, you know? He's a genuinely nice guy. He got the bad rap for the smile. That's just Phil. I've never known Phil to be anything other than that."

But many people question that perception of Mickelson, they say he's a phony, and that he's different off camera. "Most people, you know, players — they're jealous," says McCord. "Phil hasn't got a nasty bone in his body. And he's just out there playing and he's trying to enjoy it and trying to give back to the fans. He's great for the game."

But McCord's not competing against Mickelson.

It's inarguable that Mickelson's great for the game, but a better question might be whether he's great for himself. "His competitiveness is his greatest asset and his total disregard for money makes him dangerous when things get real tough," says McCord.

"His greatest fault, in my opinion, is his primal need to show off. His death-defying flop shot when it's not necessary, trying to hit it over a lake with a carry of 325 yards because it's there, or vaulting over tall trees in a single bound. That is also his greatest asset: he can do them. There lies the contradiction."

Mickelson disagrees with McCord: "I think that whatever weaknesses I may have are also strengths and they help me win a decent amount of the time. I don't think I'd be able to win that many if I wasn't a ggressive, if I was just doing the status quo of making pars and plodding along. I think what McCord might consider a weakness — and what at times has prevented me from winning — has also allowed me to win as much as I have."

If anybody hears enough rumors about Tour players and can corroborate or refute them, it would be David Feherty. Asked whether, if all those rumors aren't true, if Phil isn't really a phony, then why is there so much gossip to the contrary, Feherty says, "Part of the reason there are so many rumors about him is the fact that he has the ability to be so brilliant, but at the other end of that scale, he has the ability to make so many mistakes. Plus, Phil's accessible in a Palmer-ish way. Christ, he's signed his autograph on balls so many times that I'd imagine a ball without his signature on eBay might go for more."

So perhaps some players dislike him because they believe he makes them look bad? "Phil's so generous with his time that yes, he makes other players look bad," Feherty says. "Try to find someone without an opinion on Phil. It's impossible."

Feherty also refutes Mickelson's frat-boy persona: "He's an extremely smart guy; there's a lot going on in his head. ... He is eccentric, unpredictable, brilliant and flawed, all at the same time. To be really good you can't be totally normal." And interestingly, Feherty says, "Phil's a lot more like Tiger than either one would care to admit."

Good friend Rocco Mediate says, "Phil doesn't have any choke in him, I can tell you that." What would you call the last hole at the Open, then, Rocco? Was Phil just playing a lone-wolf game of connect-the-dots on an invisible grid?

But McCord, Feherty, Mediate: these are his friends. They wouldn't say something bad.

Take, then, what Jack Nicklaus said of him back in 2002: "Phil's a nice player, he's a good player — but he's not a great champion." It makes you wonder whether a "great champion" would have made the same great mistakes at the U.S. Open. DAVIS LOVE III, someone Mickelson doesn't quite call a friend, offers this insight: "He's one of the friendliest top players to people in general — but not to other players before the round or right after the round or walking to the ball." Love, who's never been accused of being Mr. Sunshine, goes on: "On the range, I don't put my bag next to Tiger or Phil, because they aren't going to be any fun. Maybe that's why those guys can run at the top. They don't want to let anybody in."

Based on the numbers, you are probably a big fan of Phil Mickelson. You might like his trademark "aw shucks" grin that looks hand-plucked from an emoticon catalog for when people say, "Come on Phil, show us sheepish!" Or you might like his wife, Amy, the all-American sorority blonde who bore him the all-American blond babies. And you lefthanders love his southpaw; nothing says underdog like playing a sport with the nondominant hand. You like him because Mickelson is just like you, with a wee bit more heat in his stick. And that respect goes psychologically deeper. While Tiger Woods is admired for his determination, Mickelson is a grinning goofball, seemingly laid-back and, it must be said, white. Not just white, but the very whiteness that lies at the core of the majority of the 20 million guys who play golf in the United States. He is Fred Couples to the 10th power, and Couples was the guy all the guys used to want to be.

This is not because you are a xenophobe, nor is it because you are close-minded. It is because you are human, and as human beings we emulate something that is very much like us, only better. Stephan Walk, Ph.D., president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, corroborates this: "In the apparently nonathletic Phil Mickelson there is both an element of 'white hope' and a validation of the traditional white male duffer who persists and overcomes the odds, a narrative found in many popular sports stories."

ASK MICKELSON why he thinks the fans love him, and he says, "It's been very flattering ... and I never get tired of my fans. At times, the constant analysis and wondering about my life can get a bit intrusive, but I don't feel like it happens all the time."

Here is a golfer who could have his own religion, a Scientology-like enterprise faith with a legion of sunburned, visor-headed followers, where the high church is Pebble Beach and tithing is directly related to how many sleeves of Call away balls you buy.

"I get some pretty funny letters asking me to pay for spousal support and buy off their homes or their mortgages," says Mickelson. "One guy wanted $75,000 to buy a van and date strippers. And these people are totally serious." Only a man who is seen as both better and the same as his followers could command that sort of equal-footed adulation.

Mickelson's recovery then (if there is one) will mean more to American golf fans than just a great player rediscovering his talent. If Mickelson comes back, it means we all have a chance. It will be a working man's victory — the frat boy from Arizona who grew up, made good, got out of Dodge and got himself a Ford sponsorship.

In January, here at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Springs, Mickelson is bouncing from media obligations to fan autographs like a trained seal. You get the feeling he must shut off most of his brain and leave open just the part that he allows for public consumption. Does he realize that he's one of maybe five golfers who are recognized off the course by non golf fans? "I don't know if I would say I'm a huge celebrity, but certainly now that the Golf Channel has the post-game show ... it's not just about our play anymore, it's about what you do off the course, what you do outside of golf and so forth."

What we do know of Mickelson is that he is an athlete in a sport that for a long time wore a bandleader uniform and had a math-club fan base. But like the bespectacled science nerd who gets the prom queen because he used his telescope to show her the stars, golf got cool. There's no question Tiger did that, gave the science nerd the flame-decaled telescope and a slick haircut. But guys like Mickelson are the ones who profited. He is cool by proxy.

"The turning point was in '96 when Tiger came on the scene, and I was really happy about that," Mickelson says. "He made golf cool."

But just as much as it was Tiger and not Phil who made golf cool, it is also Tiger and not Phil who plays as much for the teeth-in tenacity of the win as he does for the soul of the game. "If I had to quit playing tourney golf tomorrow," says Mickelson, "I don't think it would really affect me that much. If I could still play golf with my kids and teach them the game, I would be very content. As much as I love competing and playing in tournaments, there's a lot to professional golf that I wouldn't miss."

Perhaps it's true, then, that the Open breakdown means more to the fans than it does to Mickelson himself. And maybe that means that he's not a "great champion," like Nicklaus foretold. Maybe only the greats hate it when they're not.

ALL OF US have suffered some sort of slump. Forget about golf. At some point we've gone through a moment or even a period of breakdown. Remember how it felt to be out of your element and utterly companionable with failure? Now imagine what it might have felt like to have millions of people breathing in your ear, the redundant hows and whys, like you can even remember, and hell, as though you'd even want to. Imagine your horrified face pixilated in living color and then played back to you and to everyone who knows you, and to everyone who thinks they do. Imagine that, and then reconfigure your notion of Phil Mickelson.

Mickelson gives a predictable response when asked about the Open: "I didn't think about it until the year was up. I guess if I hadn't won a major it would be more difficult, because I'd look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I let slip, but I feel that over time, I've come closer to that U.S. Open."

McCord's thoughts: "I just don't know if ... he has enough dedication to go out and go after Tiger week after week. I don't know if anybody does."

If Mickelson was going to show any early signs of recovery, it should have been at the Ryder Cup. Men become heroes there. Like Sergio Garcia, falling stars change direction and realign themselves there. But Mickelson's performance at the K Club was dismal. Out of 5 possible points he won only 1/2, and that was a tie in team play (with Chris DiMarco).

So then we're left with the most important question of all: How will Mickelson come back?

"I'm working on improving, based on the mistakes I made, with [teachers] Rick [Smith] and Dave [Pelz]," Mickelson says. "What's interesting was that shot I missed left on 18 was the same shot I missed left on 17, and the same shot I missed through all four rounds. I'm also working on a square-headed driver with Callaway; it's more stable and the ball goes straighter, less of a tendency to go left." But Mickelson's not working with a mental coach to exorcise what makes him try those shots.

"I don't have a mental coach, no. I trust that the practice I've done will carry over into my play."

SO, WOULD a 2007 Masters win be the first step in his climb back to the top?

Carlstedt, whose research into the minds of athletes has predicted critical-moment performance at a level as high as 87 percent, says, "That would be a Band-Aid. It's like with depression: pills may make you feel better, but once you've experienced a major depressive episode, you're always vulnerable. Just like a diabetic must monitor blood sugar, so must the psychologically vulnerable golfer constantly be monitored."

That makes one wonder whether Phil's Open stroke is worse even than the golf world has made it out to be. Carlstedt's prognosis for Mickelson's future is bleak: "He'll win big again, but most likely in a runaway fashion. The closer he gets, the greater his probability of wilting."

But come on. There has to be a pot of something (if not gold) waiting at the end of the fading rainbow for the man who makes a good percentage of us watch this game. So Carlstedt offers a hopeful remedy: "The solution is to avoid critical moments, like Stefan Edberg did to win Wimbledon or Alex Rodriquez does to maintain incredible stats."

Avoid critical moments. That means not getting into the playoff, it means holding the lead by five strokes or more, it means never gambling on a shot, it means focusing like you are the world-beater, with all the results to prove it. For right now though, all that means is being Tiger Woods.

Mickelson wouldn't agree with that, just like he doesn't agree with McCord that his show-off shots are bad for his game. He does things his way. He'll lose his way, and win his way. And he's confident about the 2007 Masters. "I know what works for me at Augusta, having won twice there," he says. But he's also lost 12 times there, and if he ends up putting the jacket on Tiger this year, that might make the "showoff" feel like hiding with the nobodies.

Additional reporting by Steven Beslow

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