UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash.—Phil Mickelson was a different person Tuesday at Chambers Bay.
Technically, at least. It was his birthday. He is now 45.
Other than that, Phil is still Phil on the eve of his 25th U.S. Open. Fun, in other words.
Exhibit A: Phil was asked what he thought about the wide fairways of Chambers Bay: “If I find them plentiful, then everyone does.” That drew a laugh from the assembled media.
Exhibit B: Phil was asked about turning 45 and whether he’d thought about the fact that he was just five years away from being eligible to compete in senior majors: “Yeah, that’s really high on my list—so that’s great, thanks.” More laughs.
Exhibit C: Phil was asked about his many close calls in majors, especially the record six U.S. Open runner-up finishes, and his record at closing off wins. He reeled off some statistics that among 54-hole leaders, his winning percentage was among the top two or three of the last century. “But I don’t know what that is tangibly,” he said. There were a few more laughs. “Why is that funny?” he added with a big grin. “I don’t get it.”
Oh, he gets it. Phil has always gotten it. While Tiger Woods has only recently come around to being more open and pleasant in press conferences, Phil has always taken part in it as if he was playing a game. He enjoys the banter and enjoys making his points and enjoys outsmarting the media when he can. Which is why, if you took a poll of golf writers, Phil would be the most popular golf interview since Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Mickelson has provided every sort of story during his career—triumph and heartbreak, spectacular success and spectacular failure, family illness dramas and the know-it-all-dad routine.
His career would seem stunning if not for coinciding with that of Tiger’s. Phil has 42 victories, five major championships (three of them Masters) and needs only the U.S. Open to attain the career Grand Slam, a feat completed by a collection of legends—Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods.
Every Open he plays could be his last best shot at the elusive Open (that Sam Snead never won, either) as he enters—maybe—the twilight of his career.
He knows it, we know it and he knows we know it. Phil is all about the competition, though. He’s one of the last remaining kings of the Tuesday money game on Tour. He’ll compete at just about anything, from Ping Pong to 3-point shooting.
So he’s 45 as of today. His attitude is, So what? Phil presses on. The clock is ticking but Phil isn’t paying attention to it.
“I don’t feel that sense of urgency,” he said. “Something I would really love to do is complete the Grand Slam. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in. I’ve always felt a long, smooth flowing golf swing leads to a long career and a short, violent swing leads to a short career. So if I continue to do what I’ve done the last eight months, there’s no reason I can’t play at a high level for a while.
“The last two years, my technique and form has not been what I expected. It’s been very frustrating. Recently, I feel like I got my swing lane back and I’m hitting the shots I expect to hit but it’s in its infancy. I don’t know how long it will take to get really sharp. Maybe this week, maybe later this year. But I feel like it’s on the verge of coming around.”
That’s one more thing that has remained consistent about Mickelson. He has always been upbeat and optimistic, a glass half-full guy.
Sometimes, that has made him seem Pollyanna-ish but, as they say, that’s just Phil being Phil. About to play great? Yes, that’s authentic Phil.
The scientific approach is something else Phil likes to bring to golf. That’s why he and short-game guru Dave Pelz work and get along so well together. Pelz is a former scientist, or maybe still is a scientist of golf. Mickelson in past years has talked in detail about esoteric details, like how many footprints are left on a green by a foursome of players and their caddies in a practice round.
And, of course, Mickelson has always wanted the latest and greatest in technology in his equipment—one area where he did once criticize Tiger Woods for being deficient years ago. Phil likes to feel like the smartest man in the conversation. He’ll talk sports with fans as he signs autographs. He’ll talk golf course design—his design group was among the finalists in bidding for the Chambers Bay project when it came up but didn’t land the deal. If he had, Phil said, his vision for this ex-gravel pit on the shore of Puget Sound would have been much different than the course hosting the Open this week.
Here’s Phil sounding smart:
On this golf course, “Chambers Bay is really a wonderful course. It’s playing and set up much like what we’re used to at a British Open. This is going to be very similar to St. Andrews. So I think the guys who play well at St. Andrews will play well here this week. And the guys who play well this week should play well in another month at St. Andrews.”
On an advantage for big hitters at Chambers Bay, “I thought so two weeks ago but after playing it today, I don’t think it matters. The course is playing so fast and firm that there are only three drives I can think of where distance is going to be a factor. Holes I was hitting drivers on two weeks ago, I was hitting 3-woods and even 2-irons on today. So I don’t see it being as critical.”
On his British Open win at Muirfield helping him here, “That gives me more confidence that I’m going to play well when the course is dry and firm and fast and brown. You don’t have to be perfect at Chambers Bay. You can miss shots and still salvage pars. At Winged Foot, the greens are firm, fast and small. You’ve got three yards to land a 5-iron shot from 225 or else it’s going over the green into thick rough. Here, you’ve got 60 feet where you can hit on a hillside or at the base of a hillside and it will funnel down onto the green and you’re going to make par. You have a bigger margin of error. It’s easier to make pars here but given the firm conditions, it’s also more difficult to make birdies.”
On competing, “I know that I love what I do. I love competing against the best players. I have a huge challenge and that’s to win a U.S. Open and complete the Grand Slam. I enjoy that challenge. Every year it comes around, I get excited to try to conquer that opportunity. I love it.”
The birthday boy can’t wait to give it another shot. That’s one thing that has never changed for Phil.