LA JOLLA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson is playing with a retooled swing under new instructor Andrew Getson, and renewed hope after notching a tie for third at the CareerBuilder Challenge in Palm Springs last week. Not only that, the 45-year-old Hall of Famer will be teeing it up in his hometown tournament, the Farmers Insurance Open, for the 27th time starting Thursday.
Still, Mickelson was in an edgy mood after his pro-am round, taking dead aim first at the state of California and then at hotshot Aussie Ryan Ruffels, a 17-year-old who is playing here on a sponsor’s exemption.
“I don’t understand the politics of it at all,” Mickelson said of the impending redesign of Torrey Pines North, which Mickelson had hoped to direct but which instead will be overseen by Tom Weiskopf. “It makes no sense. I think it’s terrible business practices, but it’s what we live with here.”
Mickelson was one of the first designers to consult with the City of San Diego about Torrey North, perched on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, and had said he would even waive his design fee. But because he was part of the preliminary talks, the California Fair Political Practices Commission forbid Mickelson’s design group from submitting a formal bid.
“I’m not bitter about it,” Mickelson said. “I just kind of learned to accept that as being one of the sacrifices of living in California. It is a personal place, it is a personal thing for me because of the memories, the history, the nostalgia that I feel every time I walk on the grounds here.
“I see the potential,” Mickelson added. “It’s the greatest site in the world. I see the opportunity to bring the canyon back into the golf course, to eliminate acres and acres of unnecessary grass that require water and maintenance, and to make it even more playable for the average guy where they can run shots up, and yet have tucked pins for the Tour players.”
Mickelson complained about onerous state income taxes in 2013, so this isn’t the first time he has quarreled with the state of California. And as it turned out, the popular lefthander, whose first course design, Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a haven for Tour pros, was just getting warmed up. He pulled no punches when asked about Ruffels, the teenager who took a large but disputed sum of cash off Mickelson in a match just before Christmas.
“He’s a very nice person,” Mickelson began, choosing his words in front of a wall of TV cameras numbering more than a half a dozen. “I met him a month ago, and we played for the first time. He’s young, and he’s got some things to learn. One of them is you don’t discuss certain things.
“You don’t discuss specifics of what you play for,” he continued, “and you certainly don’t embellish and create a false amount for your own benefit. So those things right there are — that’s high school stuff, and he’s going to have to stop doing that now that he’s out on the PGA Tour.”
As the printed story went, Tim Mickelson, Phil’s younger brother and the Arizona State men’s golf coach, was the third member of the group after Phil Mickelson called Ruffels to set up the game. The stakes: If the five-time major winner Mickelson won, he would get $2,500, to be paid once Ruffels turned professional. If Ruffels won, Mickelson would pay him $5,000.
Ruffels is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald saying he birdied six of the last seven holes and “took his money, so that was pretty cool.”
The Mickelson camp says the $5,000 number is way off, and that the Mickelson quote that made the rounds — “I don’t wake up this early to play for any less than $2,500” — never happened. Ruffels’s management team has gone on record saying the story has been “overdone,” and on social media Ruffels has tried to downplay the episode, complaining of inaccuracies. He and his agent also have said he’d decided to turn pro long before the match with Phil, lest anyone accuse ASU coach Tim Mickelson of recruiting him.
One gets the sense that Ruffels and company would like nothing more for the story to go away, but Mickelson’s public rebuke Wednesday ensures that won’t happen anytime soon. On the bright side, he and Ruffels won’t be playing together at the Farmers, and Mickelson won’t have to set foot on the North Course and imagine what might have been — until Friday.
Ruffels goes off the 10th tee on the North Course with Rhein Gibson and Henrik Norlander at 12:50 p.m. ET. Mickelson, Justin Rose and Jimmy Walker will start on the first hole of the South Course at 1:40 p.m.