'Phony' label doesn't fit Phil Mickelson

‘Phony’ label doesn’t fit Phil Mickelson

Despite being labeled a phony by his critics, Phil Mickelson is still one of the most popular players in golf.
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Okay, so I have two friends who do not like Phil Mickelson. Actually, I know quite a few people who do not like Phil Mickelson. But there are two in particular I’m thinking about today after Mickelson put on one of the greatest shows ever on a Masters Saturday. Back-to-back eagles! Almost a third eagle! A brilliant 67! A slot in the final pairing on Sunday!

Yes, I know two people who are not happy.

One of those people is a colleague who knows Mickelson a little bit (but only a little bit) and the other is a friend who doesn’t know Mickelson at all. He just knows what he sees on television and reads in various places. The colleague and friend don’t know each other and they’re nothing like each other, but the funny thing is they dislike Mickelson for the same reason: both think he’s a phony.

The “phony” charge — in sports, in politics, in life — has long interested me probably because, nine out of 10 times, it doesn’t make much sense. This guy’s a phony. That woman’s a phony. I don’t like that jerk, something phony about him. A reporter friend likes to tell the story about people he knows who, through the years, have insisted that Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden was a big, fat phony. “It’s all an act with him,” they would say. To which the reporter would reply: “Well, he’s been doing it for 50 years so it’s one hell of an act.”

Even faced with that seemingly incontrovertible bit of logic, his friends continue to insist that Bowden was a phony, based not on evidence or even on hearsay or suspect stories they heard, but instead on what they feel in their guts. And that’s the part I do not understand: this sense people have that someone is a phony. I mean, John Edwards — yes, he’s a phony. I get it. All that has been revealed about John Edwards leaves no doubt that he’s a phony of the highest order.

But when I hear people say that Phil Mickelson’s a phony, well, I’m not sure I get it.

Here’s what I can see about Phil Mickelson: He goes on and on being amiable. He signs autographs. He tips his cap. He is the nation’s leading exporter of golf balls to little kids. He says goofy things like “Be right, honey!” when the ball is in the air rather than the more earthy “You suck! G–dammit!” that Tiger shouted on Saturday. He talks about his family. There are a thousand stories about random acts of kindness — a $200 tip here, a $100 purchase at a kid’s lemonade stand there — and every now and then word leaks out about him doing something beyond kind, like the way he quietly helped the family of former NFL star Conrad Dobler, who has fallen on hard times both physically and financially. “Our guardian angel,” Dobler calls Mickelson.

Still … so many people, like my colleague and friend, remain convinced that it’s an act, a ridiculous act, and that he’s a phony. They will cling to various bits of circumstantial evidence: the Esquire story that named Mickelson one of the ten most hated athletes in America; the various quotes you can find from anonymous golfers who suggest Phil doesn’t have friends on Tour; the direct line from Vijay Singh who, when asked on HBO a few years back why he didn’t smile more like Phil, said with a bit of a sneer, “Is that the real Phil?” It is not hard to find golfers who, off the record, will say that Phil maintains a distance, that he isn’t one of them, that he’s just kind of strange, that he’s not real.

“Oh, he’s just not a good guy, a big phony,” says my colleague, who has brushed against Mickelson now and again. But when I ask for testimony, something concrete that I can understand, he offers only vague stories. Apparently one player told him that Phil was just not a guy you could joke around with. Another said that Phil is not the same smiling guy when he’s not out playing, that it’s an act. My colleague has come with his own medical opinion: Phil so desperately wants to be liked that he will change his personality on the fly, like a desperate kid who has just moved to a new school.

I don’t know, that didn’t seem especially convincing to me. I guess my feeling about what “phony” means is different from some people. I believe in actions. Say there’s a guy who, deep down, doesn’t care all that much about people and would prefer to, I don’t know, watch TV or go to strip clubs or whatever. But he desperately wants to be seen as a good guy, so he gets off the sofa, and he gives a lot of money to a charity and he tirelessly gives of his time, and he’s always friendly in public, and he works hard to make other people feel better about themselves and he never stops doing this, all of his life.

Okay, he is not doing this for the right reasons. He’s doing it so people will think he’s a good guy. Is he a phony? I guess some would say yes because he doesn’t feel it. But I would say absolutely not, because at some point for me his actions outweigh his reasons. I don’t expect to understand why he’s doing it and I don’t care why he’s doing it. Heck, I barely know why I do things.

And so I don’t really care if Phil Mickelson is a card in the clubhouse. Frankly, I’ve been around some professional golfers that I wouldn’t want to hang out with either. I don’t care if he’s not always peppy in private. Who is? I don’t even care if he is friendly and kind just for effect. So what? So he wants to be liked. So he wants to present a good image. So he wants to make people feel happy, and it makes him feel good to do nice things for people, and he wants to be a marketable commodity for businesses and maybe he even wants to present a nice image for kids to see even if he’s acting happier than he feels. When did any of these things become a crime in America? Wouldn’t it be better if we had more athletes who are trying to be liked and trying to present a positive reflection?

Which takes me to my other friend. His thoughts about Mickelson fascinate me even more because he doesn’t even try to back up his reasoning. He’s just a golf fan from afar. He doesn’t know anything about Phil Mickelson that would give him any insight into the man. In fact, he knows that his feelings are illogical. He sees Phil smiling and waving to the crowd and he thinks, “That’s not real.” He remembers a quote from long ago about how Phil was thinking about his family as he walked up 18 when he was winning some tournament, and he thinks, “No you weren’t.” And, perhaps most of all, he’s annoyed because he thinks Phil has not gotten as much as he should from his game. True, Mickelson has won three Majors and 37 PGA tournaments, but with his talent he should have won more.

“I can’t explain it,” my friend said. “It’s like this week, did you see how he played golf with his son at the Par 3 Tournament?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Evan. He’s 7.”

“That annoyed me too,” he said. “It annoyed me even though I know that if I was good enough play at the Masters, I would definitely want to bring my son. But it still annoyed me.”

“That makes absolutely no sense,” I said.

“I know,” my friend said. “It’s like I say, I can’t explain it. I just can’t stand the guy.”

Needless to say, my friend likes Tiger Woods, the golfer. He knows this is illogical too. He thinks Tiger is a creep. He doesn’t buy one bit into the idea that Tiger’s going to change on the course or off. He doesn’t even think he would enjoy meeting Tiger or talking to him or any of that. But he loves watching Tiger play golf. He loves rooting for Tiger. He wants Tiger Woods to crush Phil Mickelson.

In a way, I think this cuts to the heart of this Masters and maybe even to the heart of watching sports. There is something involuntary in what makes us cheer, right? I was a voracious and zealous Cleveland sports fan because I was born and raised in Cleveland. That’s all. If I had been born and raised a two-hour drive to the Southeast, I would have been a voracious and zealous Pittsburgh sports fan, and if I had been born four hours to the South, I would been a voracious and zealous Cincinnati sports fan, and if I had been born three hours Southwest I would have been a voracious and zealous Detroit sports fan.

So, I’m a fan of circumstance. We all are, right? Maybe it’s geography. Maybe it’s a chance encounter. Maybe it’s a style of play. Maybe it’s a legacy. Or maybe it just has something to do with a gut feeling that we have a hard time defining. Many people root for Tiger because it’s fun to root for Tiger. Or because they love his intensity. Or because they appreciate the hard work he has put in. Or because they want to see a little bit of themselves in him.

The overriding question this week seemed to be: How would Tiger be received after the sex scandal? Would people still cheer for him? Would he be as dynamic a player? Would he act differently? And the answer that seems to be emerging is that, really, very little has changed. Tiger, shock of shocks, is still a great golfer — there are no penalty strokes for karma. And he still shows his emotions. And while many fans may be disgusted by his private life, they find that it’s still quite exciting when he hits a wedge-shot that dances around the cup. Maybe some old Tiger Woods fans are turned off enough that they won’t root for him anymore, but I suspect that not many will switch. Fanhood is emotional. It’s more natural to stick with your favorite through bad times than to jump to somebody or something new.

That’s the deal with Mickelson too. It seems to me that if fanhood came from a logical place, from a rational place, then it would be hard to root against Phil Mickelson. But nobody has a 100% approval rating. And people cheer for different reasons. A whole lot of people root for the bad guys in wrestling and NASCAR and everyplace else. Sure, a lot of people love Mickelson. His galleries are always huge. His fans are always vocal. And this is especially true this week. It seems to me you would need to have a heart of lead not to be rooting at least a little for Mickelson, whose wife Amy and mother Mary are battling breast cancer.

But being a fan isn’t always about being rational. It isn’t always about making sense. It isn’t always about sensible conclusions. A lot of people just despise Phil Mickelson, find him to be unctuous and irritating, and they don’t need a reason. He’s a phony. That’s their reason. They don’t need proof.

On Saturday, Mickelson was thrilling to watch. He was five shots back when he went to No. 13 and decided that it was time to make a move. For his second shot, he hit a brilliant 195-yard 7-iron to 8-feet, a breathtaking shot. He saw Fred Couples (who does like Mickelson, so at least one golfer does) and they exchanged some sort of “You the man! No, you the man!” hand signal and then Mickelson drained the eagle putt.

On the next hole, he hit a 141-yard wedge to the left of the flag and it rolled back, perfectly, into the hole. The cheers were shrieks. And on the next hole, he hit a little 87-yard pitch that almost went into the hole. too. For Mickelson fans, it was heaven — Phil producing the magic that he’s so capable of on the course. For people who despise Mickelson it was more proof of his fragility: look at how talented he is, he has as much talent as Tiger Woods, and he should have won a lot more, but he hasn’t because there’s something missing.

He finished the round one shot behind Lee Westwood going into Sunday. He politely answered questions on television. He came to the media tent and politely answered questions. He passed fans who shouted out, “Phil!” and he waved to them and smiled. How you want to see all that is how you want to see Phil Mickelson.

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