Phil Mickelson induces many emotions, but boredom is not one of them, which we were reminded of yet again during the melodrama at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla, Calif. Mickelson made his feverishly anticipated season debut at Torrey Pines, returning to a Tour in desperate need of his star power and good-guy virtues. For a couple of days it was a veritable love-in, beginning with Mickelson’s bighearted performance in a pretournament press conference and then during a lively first round that was given worshipful saturation coverage by Golf Channel. But then the story began to turn, all because of Mickelson’s typically iconoclastic decision to play a 20-year-old Ping Eye2 wedge, thus exploiting a loophole in the USGA’s new condition of competition, which requires smaller grooves with more rounded edges. In last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Scott McCarron huffed, “It’s cheating, and I’m appalled Phil has put it in play.” That’s life in the 24-hour news cycle: In one day Mickelson had gone from saving golf to ruining it.
Following his second round, Phil was advised of McCarron’s comments, and Mickelson parsed his words like a seasoned barrister, cleverly aligning himself with McCarron in declaring the USGA grooves edict “ridiculous” and the Eye2 loophole “nuts” but strongly defending his use of the controversial wedge. (For the record, four other players at Torrey used the old Eye2.) “It’s not up to me or any other player to interpret … the spirit of the rule,” Mickelson said. “I understand black and white. And I think that myself or any other player is allowed to play those clubs because they’re approved. End of story.” On Saturday morning the PGA Tour tried to quell the catfight with a statement reminding “players, fans and the media” that a series of legal settlements from the early ’90s had grandfathered any Eye2s manufactured before April 1, 1990, and that any intimations that using the clubs violated the rules of golf are “inappropriate at best.” Yet after a scrappy third round that left him four strokes back, Mickelson came out swinging, stewing about having been “publicly slandered” before adding, darkly, “because of that I have to let others handle it now.”
All the bickering overshadowed Mickelson’s work between the ropes. His ball striking was erratic throughout the first three days, which he attributed to overswinging because he was too “amped up” for his debut. Still, he cobbled together rounds of 70-67-70 thanks to a short game in midseason form. On Sunday he let the tournament get away on the first three holes, bogeying each with a series of wild shots and a missed gimme on the 2nd hole. Mickelson’s 73 left him in 19th place, five shots behind winner Ben Crane. Afterward Mickelson chose to focus on how he turned his round around: He was two under par after his opening trainwreck. “The last 13, 14 holes I hit a lot of good shots,” Mickelson said. “I’m excited because my game is feeling not as rusty as it looks.”
Now he moves up the coast to this week’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera, where he’ll be going for a threepeat at Hogan’s Alley, and then to Pebble Beach, to chase a fourth Clambake title and do reconnaissance for the U.S. Open. For the first time in his roller-coaster career Mickelson looks ready to contend every time he tees it up, thanks in part to some uncharacteristic hard work in the winter. In the past Mickelson had shut it down during his long off-season and played his way into form during the West Coast swing, but he spent most of this January grinding on his game with his stable of instructors and equipment technicians. There is a new urgency for the onetime boy wonder, who turns 40 this June. With a nod to the indefinite absence of Mickelson’s longtime nemesis, Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan says, “We know how motivated Phil is this year. He senses this is his opportunity to step up and be the man. He relishes it, I’m sure.”
With his 37 career victories, Mickelson is a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer, but there are some significant holes on his resume: He has never been No. 1 in the World Ranking or won a money or a scoring title. And he hasn’t added to his total of three major championships since he won the 2006 Masters. This is clearly Mickelson’s moment, and he’s not trying to downplay it. “I expect this year, with or without [Woods’s playing], to be one of the best years of my career,” Mickelson says.
At Torrey he was practically whistling while he worked, at least until McCarron shot off his mouth. During the first round Phil Mickelson Sr. was asked if he had ever seen his son having so much fun on a golf course. “Maybe when he was a boy first discovering the game,” he said. “But that would be it.”
Mickelson is still riding the momentum from his finishing kick last year, when he twice dusted Woods head-to-end en route to victories at the Tour Championship and the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, and his perkiness is also attributable to the continued progress that his wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, are making in their fights against breast cancer. Mickelson has always been golf’s most high-profile family guy, prone to on-course PDAs with his wife and 18th-hole victory celebrations with his three kids. This used to result in a certain amount of eye-rolling, but ever since Amy was diagnosed last spring, Phil’s very public outpourings of love for his wife have moved even the most coldhearted press-room cynic. In his pretournament news conference Mickelson was asked if he “looks at life differently” now that his family is coping with cancer. “I’m not sure, because I’ve always known how lucky I’ve been to have the wife I have and how supportive and loving she’s been and what a great mom she is,” he said. “I didn’t need something like this to happen for me to be appreciative of that.” This kind of sentiment plays especially well these days as a stark contrast to Woods’s philandering.
Tiger was on everybody’s mind last week because Torrey is where he also traditionally begins his season, and it would have been his first time back on the property since his mythmaking U.S. Open victory in 2008. (Woods missed last year’s tournament while recovering from knee surgery.) Mickelson made a few supportive comments — “Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin, and we care deeply about how this turns out” — and then announced he would not entertain questions about Woods’s woes because to talk about it publicly “feels like it’s a violation of our trust and relationship.” No amount of media prodding could get him off-message.
Mickelson was far more expansive on the grooves issue, which has a long backstory. His deal with Callaway requires him to play 12 of the company’s clubs, and he gets to pick which ones. Having played Pings at Arizona State, Mickelson says he still has a “garage full” of the old Eye2s. In the run-up to Torrey he spent weeks testing various wedges with the help of Callaway’s pointy heads, and according to Randy Peterson, the company’s director of fitting and instruction, the Eye2 that Mickelson put in play — a virtually brand-new 60-degree L wedge bent to 64 degrees — imparted 25% to 30% more spin than any of the Callaway wedges with the new grooves. Clearly that extra bite can be advantageous, but using the Eye2 was also a chance for the self-righteous Mickelson to raise a symbolic middle finger to the USGA. Since last summer Phil has been feuding with the blue coats over a groove developed by Callaway that was called the multiangle wall (MAW) design. The MAW adhered to all of the USGA specs governing the new grooves but still imparted spin comparable to the old square grooves. In profile the MAW looks a bit like a martini glass, with sharp edges where the groove wall meets the plane of the clubface. “The language in the USGA rule allowed edges to become sharper as the groove sidewall becomes less steep,” Roger Cleveland, Callaway’s design guru, told SI in an e-mail. “Despite the fact our MAW groove design fit within the USGA’s original specifications, we clearly invented something that they didn’t anticipate. It performed so well that they decided to reject it, claiming the MAW groove violated the spirit of the rule.”
Last August, subsequent to Callaway’s submitting the MAW for approval, the USGA issued a clarification, putting in place additional requirements to “define with greater precision permissible groove geometries.” Just like that, the MAW was rendered nonconforming and Callaway had to start over. Mickelson publicly blasted the USGA, and that same month at the Barclays Championship he stood toe-to-toe on the Liberty National practice green with Dick Rugge, the USGA’s senior technical director, for an animated 45-minute conversation.
This was the backdrop to Mickelson’s pretournament declaration at Torrey Pines that “I’ve sent in grooves that are legal but have not been approved for play, and I feel like the Eye2 grooves are not legal or don’t conform, but they are approved for play. And after talking with the Tour and the USGA, the only thing that matters is, Are they approved for play? So I don’t feel that there’s any problem if I were to play those clubs or if anybody else were to.”
Having made his point, Mickelson may elect to put his Eye2 back in the garage, and the Tour can force his hand by enacting a local rule banning the clubs, though Ping CEO John Solheim has already predicted that would be a messy battle. But make no mistake, the hullabaloo at Torrey was as much about Phil as it was about microscopic groove geometry. After all, no one excoriated the likes of Mahan, who was also brandishing Eye2s. Mickelson has always been a lightning rod. Until Tiger comes out of hiding, Phil is the PGA Tour’s biggest personality and most important player. His eventful week was a rude reminder that life at the top won’t be easy.