This interview appeared in the March, 2003 issue of GOLF Magazine.
Phil Mickelson has achieved the greatest success possible: He’s happy. Like, really happy. As in very. Completely. He’s figured out the secret of making a heaven here on earth. If he doesn’t call you back for a few days, it’s because he’s doing exactly what he wants to do. Which is something other then returning your call. There are ballgames to see with his mom and romantic surprises to please his wife, Amy. There are dolls and balloons and bikes and zoos to assume his two little girls. Child number three is due in late March.
Mickelson, 32, chases his children around the yard and he chases Tiger around the course-and sometimes gets hammered for preferring the former. He doesn’t fuss about what the golf world wants him to fuss about. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. It means he thinks there is more to life than golf.
He laughs easily—at himself and at you. He’s totally at ease in his own skin. He’s full of life and great company, even if he does seem like the eager sixth-grader know-it-all ready to pounce on your dopey question. For our chat just before Christmas in San Diego, Mickelson, after proving he is a world-class lunch eater, sprawled on a couch facing the bay. He didn’t punt on any issues, nor did he use the mulligan, good for any question, that I offered.
GOLF Magazine: I see the PGA Tour Media Guide lists you at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. You don’t exactly look like 190 pounds.
PHIL MICKELSON: It’s a very old Media Guide.
GOLF: The last time we talked you were on the “eat and chew anything you like as long as you don’t swallow it” diet. What’s the current plan?
I’m still on the same diet with the only difference being that I’ve been swallowing lately. It’s a bit of a problem. But there is a bright side.
GOLF: Which is?
I’m still 6-foot-2.
GOLF: Your swing is tighter, shorter, more up and down, and significantly more reliable than it’s ever been. Do you think that’s largely gone unnoticed?
To everyone except the players in the World Rankings.
GOLF: People say, “How can Phil compete when he is so woefully out of shape?”
I think that’s an unfair statement. I have been putting on some weight, but I have also been lifting weights and have become a lot stronger in the last couple of years. Lifting is one thing that allows me to make some of the demanding swing changes. The shorter swing you mentioned requires more leg strength, hip strength, and core strength to be stable.
I have put on some weight. I tend to fluctuate with my wife, Amy. When she’s pregnant, I seem to put on weight. When she’s not, I seem to lose it with her. The weight fluctuations are an emotional thing, I guess.
At the end of 2001, I hired a trainer. He’s a martial arts expert so I’ve been studying self-defense. It’s made working out more enjoyable and, in fact, that’s where I’m going when I leave you. I have to show you some great stuff. Go ahead and attack me and you’ll see how easily I can defend myself. [Kessler grabs for Mickelson’s throat. Immediately, Mickelson lifts Kessler off the floor and twists his arms in a knot.]
See it doesn’t take any muscle or skill to hurt you.
GOLF: I think you’re breaking my arm, Phil.
See how I’m using your weight against you? And I’m very fast.
GOLF: Ernie Els once said he thinks about Tiger Woods the first thing every morning. What do you think about?
Well, that’s too bad. The first thing I think about when I wake up-and this is going to sound corny-but when I look at my wife, Amy, I think about how lucky I am to have her, to have my children. What typically wakes me up is my [1-year-old] daughter Sophia at about 7 a.m., almost to a tee. Amy and I will go grab her and grab her bottle. I think how lucky I am to have my daughters in my life.
GOLF: You hugged Tiger at the end of the Skins Game. What was that about?
I thanked him for showing such compassion in missing that 10-footer to give me $200,000. Tiger and I have a wonderful relationship. It doesn’t seem that way because of the way the media portrays it, but he and I get along very well. We get along to the point where we both feel comfortable enough to rib each other quite a bit, and we do. We’ve had great Ping-Pong matches at the Ryder Cup, we’ve had great off-course conversations. I respect what he has to say. I respect what he has done.
GOLF: Do you have issues that strain your relationship?
In my mind, Tiger and I don’t have issues between us. Well, maybe one. He hates that I fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he is stuck with. We are on the same page with a lot of issues that we have with the Tour and are not in a position to discuss because it would come out as whining.
GOLF: How much is the no-majors thing driving you crazy?
Not having won a major doesn’t drive me, it really doesn’t. I rarely think about it, and it doesn’t consume me, even though I get asked about it a lot. Other than the attention it receives, it’s not something that really affects me or something I think about disproportionately.
GOLF: Is it hard to enjoy your on-course accomplishments because everyone is so busy pointing out what you’ve yet to accomplish?
That’s a great point. While I’m playing I can’t always hear what announcers are saying, but I know what they’re focused on. When I see an old telecast or when I read an article about me, it’s never about what I have done, it’s always about what I have not done. I find that very interesting because there are so many players that I’ve been beating left and right, and yet all I hear about is the great things they’re doing or have done.
Mickelson is a gambler like Arnold Palmer, but Arnold in his heyday was the finest driver of the ball in the world. Arnold gambled from the middle of the fairway. Phil gambles from the precipice of disaster. Still, Arnold could win only when playing like Arnold and Phil says he must be true to his instincts, too.
GOLF: Is your tendency to be too trusting of your emotional instincts on the course still a problem over 72 holes?
I would never say that it is a problem. I think that you have to trust your instincts, you have to trust your emotions. There’s only one way to have accomplished what I have in the game. I trust my instinct, and it is an attacking instinct.
GOLF: Can your name ever be included in the “Course Management Hall of Fame” with Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan, and Jones?
I doubt it will be in the same category of those players. It is still very possible my style of play will win a bunch of majors and be considered a good and successful course management style.
GOLF: Tiger’s won more majors since he’s become more conservative. Is that something you need to do, too?
Tiger certainly has a lot of talent, and he makes a lot of birdies and very few mistakes. He can afford to be more conservative. I, too, make a lot of birdies, and even though I make more mistakes, I can afford to be more conservative. I would say the 2002 U.S. Open was a very conservative 72 holes for me-even too conservative. One of the doubles I made, on 16, was because I hit iron off the tee and I didn’t get myself far enough down there to where I could get a reasonable shot in.
There needs to be a nice mix between conservative and aggressive play, and knowing when and where to get your four or five birdies a round and knowing when and where to try to get your 13 or 14 pars. Tiger has done a very good job of that. Tiger has won eight majors while I have always made mistakes. Not necessarily a course management mistake. It’s been more of an execution mistake where I’ll hit a hook or block at the wrong time. So I would say my course management style is still evolving, as are my game and my overall execution.
GOLF: Do you defer to caddie Jim McKay too infrequently on course management and club selection?
On club selection I consult with Bones [McKay’s nickname] a lot. Bones does an incredible job as my caddie. Documenting every shot that I’ve ever hit, how far we had, how far it flew, what the temperature and wind conditions where. I’ve played very well in Denver where the altitude makes it very difficult for club selection because we’ve charted shots. He is a very important element to my success. We don’t talk about course management very much, maybe two or three times a round. But that’s at the most.
GOLF: Do you experience internal roller-coaster rides that mirror your typical nine birdies, one double, two bogeys, and six pars round of golf?
No, because I am able accept the fact that I am not perfect, accept the fact that I already hit that shot, and accept it as part of the game of golf. When I move on to the next shot, I’m trying to hit a good shot. Which is why I’m able to hit so many good shots and make so many birdies. A lot of people get stuck in the process of trying to fix things. That doesn’t work; it puts you in a negative frame of mind and inhibits your performance. I think that a very positive outlook like mine might lead to a couple of bogeys if I get overconfident in playing a shot that I know I can hit and then not pull it off. It also leads to a lot of birdies.
GOLF: Jack Nicklaus said Tiger is the only disciplined player out there. Does that bother you?
Yes, it does. I think that is an inaccurate statement and possibly unfair.
GOLF: Rate yourself on the 1-10 scale in the following three categories over the last dozen or so major championships?
GOLF: Swing management.
Nine and a half.
GOLF: Course management.
Nine and a half. I would say for the most part it would be nines across the board, with an exception in the area of execution at a certain time in a round. I feel like my course management has been excellent to get me in contention to win tournaments. I feel like my emotional control has been very good to get me in contention. At times I will just have poor execution with a tee shot which puts me in trouble and forces me to make a riskier play with a greater penalty if the next shot is poorly executed.
Where I feel I was below nines in all areas was in the British Open and PGA Championship in 2002, where I never even got close.
GOLF: What the hell is that thing that you’ve been putting with?
I’ve been using a new putter called the Futura, by Scotty Cameron. We’ve been working on it for about two years and the most interesting thing about it is that it’s back-weighted. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the weight is in the back and that’s important because the face is in front of the shaft. At impact the face is actually ascending while the weight is leveling out at the bottom of the swing arc.
GOLF: Do you still have mechanical imperfections in your putting stroke?
The reason I would say no is that when I putt on a device with no margin for error—in which a ball has to travel between two other balls and there’s not a tenth of a millimeter of margin for error—I don’t ever miss. I start every putt on line. The only way I miss putts is if I misjudge the speed or misjudge the read.
GOLF: How much better do you putt than you did just three years ago?
What’s interesting is that in the last three years my putting has gotten to a new level, yet the perception of me as a putter has deteriorated tenfold. When I first came out on Tour I was 100-and-something in putting. Very inconsistent. My speed was awful, my line was terrible. I had very poor launch conditions, meaning the ball came off of the face very hot. I beat the ball into the ground and I did not even have enough loft, so my lag putting was horrendous. But when I would win I would make everything. So the perception was that I made everything. Because that was the only time I was on television.
Well now I am on television almost every week because I put myself in contention due to better ball-striking and more consistent putting. I putt well now just about every day. But the perception has been when I miss putts in the clutch on Sunday that I am not a very good putter, yet I have been in the top five or six and have improved my putting position by 100-plus.
If winning golf majors is golf’s ultimate destination, it’s but a part of Mickelson’s itinerary for the overall trip. His interest in majors is healthy and proportionate. He is not consumed about what he has not done. Phil sees a happy, lucky, and accomplished man in the mirror. He sees his glass as nearly full.
GOLF: Does it make you laugh or cry to know your grandparents, who have 21 flags representing your 21 PGA Tour wins, have said that from this point forward only major championship flags will be accepted?
It makes me laugh because my grandfather is a very interesting character who is 96 years old now. I would love to win a major before he passes so he has a chance to see it and have that flag, too.
GOLF: How strange is it to find yourself as the average golf fan’s favorite underdog?
It’s weird. I don’t know if I would say that I’m an underdog but it has been interesting to feel support from so many people who really believe I am the underdog.
GOLF: Jones, Hogan, Palmer, and Watson won 13, nine, seven, and eight majors respectively over roughly an eight-year period each, which is the amount of time you have until you turn 40. How many majors should I bet you’ll have by the time you turn 40?
I don’t know how many major championships I will win. I’m not worried about whether or not I’ll win one. Hogan didn’t start winning his majors until well into his 30s and he was able to win nine, including the career slam. I feel like my game is coming to a point where I can count on being in contention week in and week out. If I were to break though and win one major, I fell like the ones that follow will be much easier to win.
GOLF: Karrie Webb, the women’s number two player in the world, said she hasn’t the inclination or the work ethic to try to catch Annika Sorenstam. What are you willing to do in your efforts to try to catch Tiger?
I’m willing to do what I feel is necessary for me to play my best golf, which does not mean hitting thousands of balls a day. It does not mean playing a certain number of tournaments. It does not mean taking time away from my family. For me to play my best golf, I need to have very focused practice sessions. I need to enjoy playing and practicing. I need to be in a positive frame of mind throughout the 72 holes of a major championship. Then I will score my best.
Does it mean having a trainer to get in the best physical shape I can? Yes, and I am doing that because I feel it is necessary. Does it mean having an instructor like Rick Smith to provide direction and guidance for my swing? Yes, and I’m doing that. Does it mean practice and work hard on my game? Yes, and that’s partly why I moved to San Diego [from Scottsdale, Arizona]. I work and I practice at the Titleist test center so that my practice has direction and the benefit of being scientific. The range has a laser grid, so when I see a ball land I know to the inch how far the ball flew. That type of practice allows me to play my best without hitting thousands of balls. I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to do what it takes.
GOLF: For a man of your feel, imagination, and reputation, your scrambling statistic when you miss a green is a pedestrian figure of 61 percent [ranked 47th]. Why?
The greens have become so firm on Tour that it is becoming more and more difficult to get up and down, period. But it’s even more difficult to get up and down from the short side of the greens, which is where I have been missing too frequently.
GOLF: And exactly what are you doing about that?
Shaping the shot more from the middle of the green now rather than just going right at it.
Mickelson’s public reaction to wins and losses rivals the sportsmanship values of Jack Nicklaus, though Mickelson doesn’t get credit for it. We know how deeply he hurts when another one slips away, yet we hear him make the classy comment. He has a lot more losing to handle than Jack did, but Jack, of course, never had to deal with Tiger.
GOLF: No one believes you when you say things like, “I saw a really great movie and it was an honor to be on the leaderboard this week,” as you did at the 2002 Masters.
Well, you have to understand that I have been trying to win a major now 40-some times and I have been trying to find different mental approaches to keep me relaxed throughout for the seven days of the competition, including the practice rounds. Sometimes you have to look at it different ways, and for the 2002 Masters my mental approach, which helped me, was to be thankful for what I have and not worry about what I don’t have, which is a major championship title. To be thankful for the Tour victories I have, for the opportunities to grace the fairways of Augusta, for the opportunity to compete and contend for that championship. That allowed me to be more relaxed.
GOLF: Would you be struggling to win majors if Tiger weren’t on the scene?
I think the way the media discussed me would be 180 degrees different. Instead of being number two the past three years, I would have been number one. I would have won more tournaments than anybody else. Then everybody would be talking about what I have won as opposed to what I haven’t. However, the challenge of competing against Tiger has pushed me to get better, pushed me to elevate my game to compete at this level. So there is a good chance without him around that I wouldn’t be playing at the same level I am.
GOLF: When is the last time you yelled at someone?
I typically don’t yell. I typically stay pretty calm and have discussions. I don’t yell at my kids, I don’t yell at Amy. We talk about things if I have a disciplinary issue with my children. I’ll give them a choice: They can either act better or I can pick them up and put them in the crib. It’s their choice. I can’t remember the last time I actually yelled.
GOLF: Do you remember the last time you threw a club in anger?
I’ve never thrown a club in anger. I threw a club one time and it was in the Santa Claus Classic, a fund-raiser in Arizona. It was a competition based on who could throw the club the farthest. I had never done it and as I tried to throw it forward I failed to release it. It went flying backward and about killed my playing partner. It came within inches of his head. That was the first and last time I threw a club.
GOLF: What’s your worst quality, on or off the golf course?
I don’t think anybody likes to admit their worst quality. So I’m no different than anyone else. Actually, I just can’t think of one. How vain is that? Amy thinks my worst quality is that she would like to see me answer my mail and telephone calls in a more timely fashion. I don’t mind that I get behind on those things and I wouldn’t change that about me. The one thing I wish was different about me was that I wish I had visceral fat instead of subcutaneous fat. When I gain weight I gain it underneath the skin rather than beneath the muscle. Do you want me to spell visceral and subcutaneous for you?
GOLF: What’s your best quality?
My best quality is I can delegate. That allows me to manage a lot of different things in my life—my relationship with my wife, my relationship with my children. A lot of that is time management. I delegate a lot of my other responsibilities in life.
GOLF: Tell me about your James Bond-like love of gadgets and the secret stuff you do to your cars.
One of the big perks about being sponsored by Ford is the gadgets. Although I drive a Ford Expedition, I also have a sports car, the Aston Martin Vanquish, which is in the latest Bond movie. Ford owns Aston Martin. All the little gadgets that we have on there are pretty cool. There’s a loud-speaker so you can talk to other cars, and an oil slick and high compression water spray at the rear license plate. The license plate also flips down and there is a camera that records everything that goes on behind me. We have a flip-up LCD monitor inside tied to DirectTV which is what I have on the Expedition. In the Vanquish I don’t have DirectTV, just the DVD and VCR.
GOLF: Are enemies chasing you instead of James Bond?
Yes, they are. That’s why I need and enjoy the little gadgets.
GOLF: You are getting a reputation as a know-it-all, just like the Johnny Carson character Carnac. The same reputation that Nicklaus and Watson had before you. Is the “Carnac” label a fair one?
I did not know that was the case or reputation, but I certainly don’t like that. I don’t feel that label is fair. I feel that I learn quite a bit every day. I love to learn; in fact, I try to learn a bunch of new things every single day. Just because I happen to be knowledgeable in the area of quantum gravity and talk about light travel and time travel and speed of light and so forth does not mean I know everything. I learn from other people, and I don’t mind sharing that knowledge with people. I am sorry if it is coming across in a know-it-all way. Maybe I need to re-evaluate my message or how I am speaking.
GOLF: Who’s the best player for his own money?
Johnny Ray Huston, without a doubt. Johnny Ray Huston makes more birdies on Tuesday than I’ve ever seen one man make. I’ll never forget we were playing John Daly at Augusta in this big match and we came to 18 and Daly was closed out, so he presses and hits it up there about three feet for a three and thinks he’s gotten his money back. Johnny Ray Huston holes his second for a two. Oh, the look on Daly’s face. Oh, oh, oh. Johnny Ray. I played him at St. Andrews in 2000 and he was 12 under through 11 holes. Needless to say, I lost.
GOLF: What have you and teacher Rick Smith been working on?
One of the tendencies that I have always had, and commentators have actually got this correct, is that I’ll get what they call narrow. On the downswing, the club will get underneath the plane and too close to my body. My body will then get in the way, and when I get to impact I have to flip the club over to get it back to square. That’s when there’s inconsistency and a big hook. So, for 2003, I’m working on keeping the club out, away from my body, and on plane for a longer period of time.
GOLF: Where would you take two career mulligans?
The second shot on number 16 at Pinehurst in 1999 at the U.S. Open, where I missed the green just to the right. I had a one-shot lead and Payne [Stewart] did not hit a good second shot and ended up having and making a 40-footer for par. Had I hit the middle of the green and made par, I think I would have won. Instead, I missed the green to the right, hit a fluffy chip to 10 feet, and ended up missing the par putt.
My second would be the first putt on number 16 on Sunday at the 2001 PGA when David Toms beat me. I had just pulled even with a birdie chip-in at 15. I hit a poor tee shot on 16, but it found the fairway after hitting a tree. I hit a poor second shot that was misclubbed. I went with one less club than I knew I should have but I wanted to hit something hard. I hit it right at the pin but it was 50 feet short. I was not in a patient frame of mind. After just chipping in, I was still in the frame of mind of, “Let’s make another miraculous shot,” try to make it from 50 feet. I ran it eight feet by and left myself a quick downhill curler that I ended up missing. I needed to be more patient.
GOLF: Tiger said second place sucks. Does it?
I guess I would have to agree with that. It does suck.