Phil Mickelson: Our No. 1 Golfer of the Year

December 16, 2009

It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning at Wal-Mart in northern San Diego. Six days ago, Phil Mickelson shot 67 in the final round of the PGA Championship. This morning, he’s the cheerful host of the sixth annual Start Smart, a back-to-school shopping spree for 1,500 needy first-through fourth-graders hosted by the Phil & Amy Mickelson Foundation. The Mickelsons could just write a check, but their intimate involvement turns Start Smart into a celebration of family values. On hand to help stock shelves and shepherd the kids are the Mickelsons’ own children, plus assorted parents, friends and business associates.

It’s such a feel-good scene that many looking on are visibly moved. “It’s incredibly touching to know that someone cares about these kids,” says Susie Sovereign, the principal at Herbert Ibarra Elementary School, which had 78 students at this year’s Start Smart. “These are our neediest children. Some of them have literally never had a pair of new shoes in their life, only hand-me-downs. Now they can feel good about themselves. This program is successful on so many levels.”

Start Smart is one of the many ways Mickelson is touching lives away from the course. And he still inspires between the ropes, too. It’s for the passion with which he plays and lives that Golf Magazine honors Mickelson as our No. 1 Golfer of the Year. In a Tour season with no dominant player, Phil created the sport’s most indelible memories, all of them coming during his storybook Masters victory. His eagle, eagle, damn-near-a-third-straight-eagle stretch on the back nine on Saturday would have defined his victory if not for one of the ballsiest shots in Masters history the next day: a 6-iron off the pine straw, out of the trees, over the creek and onto the 13th green for a birdie, propelling him to a third green jacket. Afterward Mickelson summed up the play—and his entire career—by woofing, “A great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.”

Yet even that epic 6-iron is not the moment that lingers from his triumph. After tidying up his bogeyless 67, Phil haltingly made his way to Amy, who was waiting behind the 18th green. It was her first public appearance since being diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months earlier. Phil and Amy’s embrace was almost cinematic in its sweetness and a poignant reminder of why we care about sports. Ever since his bride’s diagnosis, Mickelson has been playing for something larger than himself, and as he and Amy shared that joyous, tearful moment at Augusta National, a nation of fans cried along with them.

In the wake of the victory, letters and e-mails poured into the Mickelsons, many from families affected by cancer. Phil and Amy were humbled by how many people thanked them for their inspirational example. Mickelson has always taken his role-model status seriously and tried to carry himself with the grace and generosity of his hero, Arnold Palmer. Phil signs more autographs in a week than most players scribble in a year, and even during his most ragged rounds has a smile and a nod for his fans—the kind of little interactions that created his loyal army. Off the course he delights in random acts of kindness. The PGA Tour circuit is full of stories from single-mom waitresses who received $1,000 tips on a Mickelson dinner bill, or kids selling 25-cent lemonade who were given a C-note by Phil and told, “Keep the change.”

On a macro scale, Mickelson has quietly become one of the most influential philanthropists in sports. This charitable desire was born during the spring of 2003, when Amy and son Evan both nearly died in childbirth. This first brush with mortality led Mickelson to reset his priorities. In 2004 he began supporting military veterans and their families with donations and public service. In 2006 these efforts were branded “Birdies for the Brave,” and it became a Tour-sponsored initiative that has contributed more than $5 million to various programs. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mickelson kicked down $500,000 in donations and committed early to the 2006 New Orleans Classic, the first to be played after the levees broke. Also, science is an enduring passion not only for Phil but for his three children, which in 2005 led to the creation of the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. The school offers an intensive one-week, all-expense-paid professional development program designed to provide third- through fifth-grade teachers with innovative skills to teach math and science ?in the classroom. To date, more than 2,000 teachers have attended the Academy, impacting an estimated 30,000 students nationwide.

At Start Smart, all the Mickelsons are enthusiastic volunteers. Last year Amy was too waylaid by treatments to attend, so this time around she threw herself into helping, spending 15 minutes with one young girl to make sure she got the perfect shoes. Her energy level was all the more remarkable considering that she had gotten up at 3 a.m. to get her own family moving. Why not just leave the little Mickelsons at home? “It’s important for our kids to know how lucky they are,” said Amy, looking radiant in a blue dress.

A new wrinkle at this year’s Start Smart were shelves of Dr. Seuss books. Inside the front cover, each had been personalized with a message from Phil and Amy: “When you walk through the doors of school this year, remember how lucky you are to go to school, get an education and make a better life for yourself. So study hard, learn a lot, and have fun!” One of the dads on hand, A.C. Radcliff, had Phil autograph a book. A.C. is not a big golf fan but has seen Mickelson on TV once or twice. What does he think of him now? “He’s good people,” said Radcliff. Then he tenderly grabbed his son’s hand, and they continued with their shopping.