They say the years change a man, but they haven't changed Phil Mickelson

They say the years change a man, but they haven’t changed Phil Mickelson

Mickelson celebrates his victory with longtime caddie and friend Jim "Bones" Mackay.
Bob Martin / Sports Illustrated

GULLANE, Scotland — Whenever Phil Mickelson wins a major, I think of snails. Not your lawn-munching snails, but the kind dressed up on menus as "escargot." I think of snails because I met Phil over a plate of the buttery mollusks 22 years ago, when he was a twenty-year-old junior at Arizona State University. Phil had chosen Scottsdale's trendiest French restaurant for our interview, and his head swiveled as he took in the swanky surroundings.

Studying the menu, Phil asked me about escargots. ("They're snails, right?") What followed was a snail-tongs comedy that had folks at nearby tables leaning away, fearing that the grinning youngster might skull one onto their laps. But Phil somehow stayed in bounds and chewed the unfamiliar morsels with growing pleasure. "They're good," he said. "They're really good."

"From this episode," I reported in Sports Illustrated, "one gathers that Mickelson is curious, playful, unsophisticated, adventurous (he ordered the snails) and not the least bit self-conscious. Of course, you could have concluded most of that just by picking up the sports pages and reading COLLEGE GOLFER WINS PGA TOUR EVENT, or by seeing his happy puss photographed under a conquistador's helmet, his trophy for winning the Tucson Open."

This evening, watching a still-youthful Phil give the thumbs up to thousands of cheering grandstand patrons as he took the claret jug on a victory lap around Muirfield's eighteenth green, it struck me: He's the same guy. Two decades and 42 PGA Tour victories later, he's absolutely the same guy.

They say the years change a man, but they haven't changed Mickelson. A mid-career stretch of Ryder Cup ineptitude didn't shake his confidence. Six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open haven't caused him to lose a hair from his flourishing brown locks. Even the health crises of his wife, mother and doted-upon children failed to blunt his essential optimism. Phil is, in a word, resilient.

That's now, but it has ever been. Few remember this, but the amateur Phil, leading the 1991 Tucson Open by a stroke, shot a triple-bogey 8 on the 14th hole at TPC StarPass — a snowman in the desert! — before making birdies at 16 and 18 to beat Bob Tway and Tom Purtzer by a stroke. Corey Pavin, who played with Mickelson in the final group, said, "I've never seen anybody come back from something like that."

Phil, in the years since, has made it seem commonplace.

A gentleman up the row wonders if I had thought Phil to be smart. I tell him yes, although I didn't know how Phil might apply his intelligence. In that first interview, knowing that the U.S. Amateur and NCAA champ maintained a 3.0 grade point average as a psychology major, I asked Phil what he did on a typical school day. He said, "At 6:30 I watch Cheers. At 10 o'clock I watch Cheers. And on Thursdays, at 6:30, 8 and 10, I watch Cheers. Monday and Wednesday I do some homework."

It was a deliberately misleading answer, because Phil was diligent in the pursuit of his college degree; but no one, in the following decades, has ever described him as "jaded."

What he's been called instead is "phony." It took me years to figure out that Phil's critics were pointing to his relentless good manners. And it's true, politeness is a form of insincerity. It's the kind of insincerity that keeps you from telling your aunt you'll never wear that Christmas sweater she gave you.

This again, is from my '91 piece:

Mickelson is sensitive to the notion that his demeanor is as carefully coached as his swing. However, he makes no bones about one thing: He is polishing his act. "A golfer is an entertainer, much like an actor," he says. "People pay money to go out and watch you play, and I don't think they pay just to watch you hit a drive down the middle, hit a shot on the green and two-putt. That's why Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller are so popular. They are entertainers as well as golfers."

Well, there's no question that Phil has polished his act. What he accomplished today at Muirfield, birdieing four holes down the stretch to win the Open Championship by three, was just his latest star turn — the most recent occurring only last week, when he won a Scottish Open playoff with one of his trademark wedge shots. Mickelson losing, golf fans have learned over the years, is more compelling than another pro winning.

"Phil is like Arnold Palmer," his then-swing coach Dean Reimuth told me in '91, "in that he doesn't just like to play golf; he likes to play golf when people are there."

Three years after our dinner in Scottsdale, I ran into Phil after the final round of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills. He was tired and somewhat disappointed with his third-place finish, but he greeted me outside the locker room with his habitual smile. I said, "Tell you what, Phil. When you win your first major, I'll treat you to another escargot appetizer."

His face lit up. "That would be great."

It's one of those promises that got lost with the passage of years, but now that Phil's won his fifth major, I just might remind him.

Snails, I understand, go well with claret.