Phil Phanatics: The People Behind the People’s Champion

November 8, 2013

For a sense of the effect that Phil Mickelson has on fans, consider the comportment of Jean Cowdery, 87 years old and a grandmother of three, now giggling like a Justin Bieber groupie with a backstage pass and a front-row seat.

It’s a sticky, late-summer afternoon at Conway Farms Golf Club outside Chicago, and Cowdery has spent the past four hours parading through the swelter, catching glimpses of her idol along the way.

If she’s feeling weary, she doesn’t show it. She’s a giddy figure standing by the 18th green amid a swarm of kindred spirits — school kids, stockbrokers, mini-Ditkas — all calling in chorus:

“Phil! Phil! Over here!”

Mickelson scans the crowd. His gaze settles on Cowdery.

“I recognize you.”

“I’m 87,” she says, star-struck into a non-sequitur.

“That can’t be. You don’t look it,” Mickelson says.

He smiles and signs her cap, making her knees weaker than the weather ever could.

“I love you, Phil!” says Cowdery, swooning.

This is just a snapshot, a scene from the BMW Championship. But it could 
 be Scottsdale, Bethpage or Pebble Beach. The images repeat wherever Phil plays.

Arnie had his Army. Phil has his Phanatics, one of the most diverse, adoring fan bases in the game. The love that they shower on him springs from many sources, fed by his reputation as an all-in-one: family guy, philanthropist, gentleman, risk-taker — a people’s champion despite his many millions of dollars, an endearing underdog who nevertheless has won five major titles.

Perhaps above all, he’s a fan’s best return on emotional investment, a star who understands the grandness of small gestures.

Vijay Singh beats balls. Phil Mickelson signs them.

The many sides of Phil attract a range of demographics, all of them on hand at Conway Farms.

“We all want to see goodness, and that’s what he embodies,” says Frank Guagliardo, 48, whose eight-year-old son, Massimo, has skipped school to be here. “He’s a role model for both kids and adults.”

It wasn’t always like this. Early in Phil’s career, some groused about Mickelson’s aloofness. But the man once known as “FIGJAM” (look it up) matured through on-course disappointments, the demands of fatherhood and the trials of family illnesses. Along the way, he rounded into something bigger than he’d been. Support for him galvanized around a montage of moments: a face-grab from Payne Stewart; Amy’s cancer diagnosis; his breakthrough at Augusta.

Amid the throngs at Conway Farms walks Paul Nielsen, 48, the athletic director for a park department. For Nielsen, his wife, Tina, and their three teenage children, Phil fandom is a force for family bonding. They collect souvenirs together. When daughter Courtney was younger, she drew pictures of Phil on her father’s birthday cards.

The Nielsens are all here, wearing bright red T-shirts, the front of each emblazoned with a letter of Phil’s name. Dad wears the shirt with the exclamation point. Phil spies them in the gallery on the 16th hole. He nudges caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay and points.

“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Phil tells the Nielsens, and he does, exchanging post-round fist bumps and autographing the five flags 
 the Nielsens have brought with them, one for each of Phil’s major wins.

Cowdery, a Floridian, has prolonged a family trip to get face-to-face with Phil. In her 87 years, she says, there have been greater moments — the birth of 
 her children, for example.

“But this is right up there with the best.”

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