TROON, Scotland — No matter what he does next — starting with this weekend on the sublime seaside course here — this is an ideal time to put the amateur and professional career of one Philip A. Mickelson in perspective. He won a Junior World Championship in 1980, when he was 10. He won a U.S. Amateur in 1990, when he was 20. He won four times on Tour in 2000, the year he turned 30. He won his third Masters in 2010, the year he turned 40. Now, at 46, he is trying to win his second British Open and his sixth major championship. He has been one of the best golfers in the world for more than 25 years. Through periodic injury, personal turmoil and inattentiveness, he has soldiered on.
Mickelson has most likely signed more autographs than any other active athlete, without ever charging a dime. He definitely has more second places in the U.S. Open than any other player in history. (Six!) It is hard for us to imagine him winning an U.S. Open. The Thursday-Friday rounds are too long; his mind-set is not made for grinding; his general ambivalence about the USGA seems to interfere with his play. It is not hard to imagine him winning at Troon on Sunday. It is obvious he loves everything about golf here in the kingdom, including (compared to back home) slow, flat greens that are welcoming to a claw putting grip with a forward press. Also, the demanding homeward nine at Royal Troon is ideal for a lefthander who can hit high draws all day long.
Mickelson plays with joy. (Check out his reaction when that putt for 62 lipped out Thursday.) And he has spread joy. (Look at all the hands extended to him as he makes any green-to-tee walk, photo below.) His career has been nothing short of astounding. The 36 holes he has played at Troon, completed in a mere 132 shots, is just the latest. Like Fred Couples before him, he will be a factor at Augusta, at least now and again, for the next 10 years or more. Why? Because he is what he has always been, a golfer with a unique skill set and outsized desire. The thrill of competition just means too much too him. Tiger Woods burned out. Surely, his fade is rooted in an uncooperative body. But there are other factors. For one thing, Woods does not want his game measured against what it was in his prime. The comparison will be just too painful for him. Plus, he has accomplished enough. (“Everything beyond this will be gravy,” he said last year.) You can compare the 2016 Mickelson model to any other model of him. He’s fine with it.
In terms of having long, productive careers, here are the leaders in the clubhouse: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Sam Snead, Vijay Singh, Peter Thomson and Julius Boros. And Phil. That’s about it. Go ahead and put Woods on the list, if you’re so inclined. He won a USGA national junior title in 1991, at 15. He won his 14th major at the U.S. Open in 2008, at 32.
But you cannot compare Tiger and Phil. Yes, they were both southern Californian prodigies and public-course golfers. They both played their best golf under the macho tutelage of Butch Harmon. And in terms of skill, there is little that Woods can do that Mickelson cannot. But Woods had the gene for relentlessness. He fouled off nine pitches every time up. Meanwhile, Phil, that damn artiste, was primping, plotting, doing weird and unknown preparatory things at off-site locations, having secret meetings under the brim of Dave Pelz’s bucket hat, treating middle-school graduation ceremonies like they are White House dinners. They’ve both made this little slice of the world a more interesting place.
Mickelson is playing this weekend for the claret jug, of course. But he’s playing for more than that. His role in an insider-trading case against professional gambler Billy Walters has to be a source of embarrassment for him. It would only be normal human behavior for him to be irritated at FBI and SEC investigators who have made it their business to turn his gambling debts into a federal investigation, and to the reporters who made it front-page news. The best way for an athlete to shut up his or her critics is to win something. Everybody loves a winner. Like the Nike ads said of Woods when he was returning to golf after his hydrant problem, “Winning takes care of everything.”
It doesn’t, of course. But if Phil Mickelson wins this 145th British Open, he’ll almost surely be on the Ryder Cup team come fall. Mickelson has been on the last 10 Ryder Cup teams. Nobody has played more. Those appearances have meant as much to him as anything he has done in the game. It keeps him young. Who doesn’t like young?