In Honor of Golf’s Unsung Heroes: The Moms

June 10, 2015

U.S. Open stories run to fathers like sliced tee shots run to o.b. stakes. It’s understandable, of course, as the national championship concludes on Father’s Day—we miss you already, Johnny!—and fathers so often beat down the pathway to junior’s junior golf. We pause to nod to Deacon Palmer, Charlie Nicklaus, Ray Watson. Neels Els and Gerry McIlroy. Phil Mickelson Sr., Theo Goosen, Earl Woods.

At Jack’s tournament last week it was so charming to hear Tiger talk with fatherly pride about the swing his six-year-old son, Charlie, makes while remembering “the genius” move his own father made when Tiger was starting out. Earl would establish a “Tiger par” on each hole, and as Tiger’s golf improved, par took a hit. Par could be nine or seven, or five when he was ready for it. How fun.

But lost in all these stories of fatherly devotion are the unsung heroines of golf, the mothers. Doris Palmer saved every clipping about Arnold and thereby gave her son’s golf even more purpose. Rosie McDonald McIlroy worked night shifts in a 3M plant that helped pay for Rory’s travel to amateur events. Tida Punsawad Woods instilled in Tiger—let’s be frank here—a certain ruthlessness that is at the core of his greatness. Mary Santos Mickelson passed along to Phil her powerful physique, competitive instinct and love of the outdoors.

You can’t go to a major and not see Mrs. Mickelson, tan and strong and lively—and a cancer survivor. She has a sleeve of athletic children, and all three have found their way to golf. Tina is a golf teacher, company rep and writer. Tim is the Arizona State men’s golf coach. Phil is one of the best golfers in the world and has been now for the past 25 years. When Mary Mickelson went to Phil’s first U.S. Open, in 1990, she turned to her husband and said, “It’s all just starting, isn’t it?”

For several years after World War I her own father, Alfred Santos, was a caddie at Pebble Beach, and years later he was a commercial fisherman in San Diego, with calloused hands and a big strong body, like Phil’s, made bigger yet by reeling in 500-pound tunas from the Pacific. Hauling tunas from the ocean and snatching birdies out of a golf hole, they’re not that different. What a journey for Phil—Philip Alfred Mickelson—to get to his 25th U.S. Open next week, at Chambers Bay, on Puget Sound.

Mary keeps one of her father’s fishing needles, which he used to fix nets, in a frame on the wall of the home in which she and Phil Sr. raised their three children. “I always wanted our kids to remember where we were and the work it took to get here,” she says. The needle looks like a small sword, or a miniature version of a primeval iron, a mid-mashie or something.

Mrs. Mickelson played basketball at Our Lady of Peace in San Diego, class of 1960, and 41 years later she and two friends won a national three-on-three basketball tournament for women of a certain age. Afterward, athlete mother called athlete son and said, “Now I get it, that in-the-zone thing you talk about.” One of her teams, by the way, was called the Hot Flashes. And you were wondering where Phil gets his wicked sense of humor.

Mrs. Mickelson has never spent much time with Mrs. Woods. (“I introduced myself to her at that Ryder Cup in Chicago, in the family room,” she said. That was in 2012.) Mary Mickelson knows Penta Love and Hettie Els better. She is especially fond of Consuelo García. “I don’t speak much Spanish, and she doesn’t speak much English, but we have boys doing the same thing.”

You’ll see Mrs. Mickelson at Chambers Bay, and she is hoping, of course, that this will be the year her son finally wins a U.S. Open. But no matter what Phil does next, it really won’t change anything.

“I thought he would win it that time at Winged Foot, until that final hole,” Mrs. Mickelson said last Saturday. That was nine years ago already. “But when it was over, he talked to all the reporters, signed all those autographs, went to the prize ceremony.

“Now what is a mother supposed to say in that situation? I’m not the golfer. I’m just his mom. I told Phil, ‘I’ve never been more proud of you.'”

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