What will Phil do next? Please, like anyone has a clue

January 17, 2018

The golf tournament played on three courses in the California desert this week, the CareerBuilder Challenge, was known in earlier and simpler times as The Hope, for the man who hosted it, Bob Hope. Arnold — Arnold Palmer — won it five times, the last of which was in 1973, at age 43. At the awards ceremony that year, Hope, looking for the $32,000 first-place check, asked, “Who’s got the money?” Down came the house, Arnold leading the way. He owned the desert.  

Which brings us to Phil. Phil Mickelson, now 47. He’s a property-owner, an investor and a regular in the California desert. He played in The Hope when Hope was still around and starting on Thursday he’ll play in its successor, as the so-called tournament ambassador. It will be his first tournament in the U.S. since early October, when he finished in a tie for third in the Safeway Open, in Napa. If the Tour has an Arnold Palmer today, it is Phil. Long careers, flashy shots and shoes, patient signers, scores of wins, experts in the high arts of fan appreciation and TV readiness, relentless optimism. So here it comes, the old Hope, the 560th event of Mickelson’s wildly entertaining career. He looks tanned, rested and ready, big and strong but also trim and flexible. Here are the first two items on his 2018 To-Do List:  

1. Win the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in June, which would make him the sixth player to win the career grand slam, unless Rory McIlroy becomes No. 6 by winning the Masters in April. The last time the U.S. Open was at Shinnecock Hills was in 2004. Mickelson finished in solo second.  

2. Make Jim Furyk’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, which will play outside Paris in late September. He’s been on every Ryder Cup team since 1995, and made them all on points. He has never been on a team that won in Europe.

For many golf fans, Mickelson is a strange blend of the predictable and unpredictable. After his debacle at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, who would have guessed he would win the Scottish Open in his next outing? Or the British Open the following week? But that is what he did, and those two wins, in Europe, are the most recent wins in his career. No wins in ’14 or ’15 or ’16 or ’17, despite chances to make significant additions to a career that has already landed him in the World Golf Hall of Fame. In other words, he was never boring.

In 2014, Mickelson had a runner-up finish in the PGA Championship. (McIlroy won by a shot, practically in the dark.) Also that year, Mickelson’s thinly veiled criticism of losing Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson went viral.  

In 2015, he finished in a tie for second in the Masters. (Jordan Spieth won, by four.) Also that year, Mickelson, on the team as a captain’s pick, stole the show at the Presidents Cup in South Korea, which the U.S. won by a point, with Mickelson going 3-0-1, the half coming in a bizarre rules situation in a better-ball match in which Mickelson lost two holes while playing one.

In 2016, he had a second in the British Open. (Henrik Stenson, by two, in one of the most impressive performances in Open history.) Also that year, as a relief defendant in an insider trading case, Mickelson agreed to make a $1 million payment to the SEC, related to profits he made on a Dean Foods stock purchase.  

In 2017, Mickelson had no second-place finishes in majors (he missed two cuts), he didn’t play in the U.S. Open when it conflicted with his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation, but he went, again, 3-0-1 at the Presidents Cup. Also, he and his career-long caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay parted ways. (Forty-one wins together.) It’s always something, isn’t it, with this Phil Mickelson?

The easiest prediction you can make for Mickelson in 2018 is to expect more of the same, whatever that might mean. There’s no saying, not when it comes to Mickelson.  

This week, at the CareerBuilder Challenge, whenever you see Mickelson, a 1992 Arizona State graduate, there will often be two former ASU golf coaches in the vicinity. One is Steve Loy, who was the coach when Mickelson played there. The other is Phil’s younger brother, Tim, who coached the team for five years until resigning in 2016. Loy has been Phil’s longtime agent and business partner and runs the golf division at the sports agency Lagardère. Tim left ASU and joined Lagardère in 2016 to represent one of his former players, Jon Rahm. In December, Phil announced that Tim would be his fulltime caddie this year. Lagardère manages the CareerBuilder event for the Tour. It manages the Safeway event, too. Rahm is playing in the CareerBuilder. Yes, there are a lot of intersecting points in all of that. Phil likes all that. That whole keep-it-simple thing is not for him. He relishes the swirl.

Phil turns 48 on the Saturday of this year’s U.S. Open. Chances are good he’ll either be contending or on his plane flying back to San Diego. As for this week, at the old Hope, Mickelson will surely sign more autographs than he takes shots. When Arnold played in the old Hope when he was 47, in 1978, he made the cut, finished near last, made $365. Mickelson will leave more than that in the tournament’s three locker rooms this week.