In 2004 Ford created an advertising campaign around the tagline, “What will Phil do next?” It got a lot of play in the media and eventually throughout the golf world when Phil Mickelson would hit a shot only he could see or make a decision bystanders couldn’t comprehend or show up at Augusta using two drivers to win the Masters or five wedges in a win at Colonial.
His parents, Phil and Mary, had been asking the same question for more than 30 years. Golf fans started asking it nearly 15 years earlier, when he won a PGA Tour event as a college junior. In 1999 people wondered why he’d allow himself to be “distracted” by a beeper he carried through a U.S. Open while counting both strokes in a championship decided on the last hole and the minutes until his first child was born.
Five years after “What will Phil do next?” they’re still wondering and waiting and watching because it’s all been so much fun for them and rewarding for Phil. And because when you really think about it, there’s really no one else of whom to ask that question.
The oft-told tales of Phil’s upbringing in golf are absolutely true: He started playing at golf about the time he could walk without holding on for support. He ran away from home at age 3 1/2, telling neighbors he was going to the golf course; the neighbors steered him around the block and back home. He won 34 San Diego Junior Golf Association titles. He flew with his airline pilot father’s pass and his mother took a second job to help pay for his American Junior Golf Association play; he repaid his parents by winning an unprecedented and unequaled three consecutive AJGA Rolex Player of the Year awards and a scholarship to Arizona State University. And then everything changed for Phil Mickelson.
Actually, no. Actually everything had changed on April 13, 1980. He was watching Seve Ballesteros walk triumphantly up the 18th fairway at Augusta National, watching him smile and wave at the hysterical fans, when Phil called to his mother in another room.
“Mom,” the 9-year-old insisted, “one day that’s going to be me. I’m going to win the Masters and be walking up to the 18th green just like that.”
That day came 24 years later, after a very long walk. Before that Mickelson had won 22 PGA Tour events in less than 12 years. He had played in 41 major championships as a professional and listened to the count, 0-for-30 in majors, 0-for-35, 0-for-41. Though he was confident as always heading into that week, along with everyone else a tiny part of him had to wonder what he’d do next. He answered with five birdies in the last seven holes, including an 18-foot birdie putt on the last.
But he always was pretty good at coming up with answers. As a teen he’d bribed his neighbor to drive him to the golf course and skipped out on a family Thanksgiving gathering. As soon as his parents realized where he was they raced to the course to pick him up. When his mother let him know that he was all wrong he said he understood but, “As Ben Hogan says, every day you don’t practice is one day longer before you achieve greatness.” His mother didn’t say it but all she could think was, “Oh, all right then.”
Phil earned his psychology degree at Arizona State University after his 1991 win in Tucson and turned professional on the eve of the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, days after his 22nd birthday. He had won the U.S. Amateur in Cherry Hills in 1990, and like Arnold Palmer in U.S. Open there 30 years before, he started his final charge with a bold drive off the first tee to the well-guarded first hole. He had gone 3-0-1 in his second Walker Cup appearance. He had won the Western Amateur and the Porter Cup. He had signed his first endorsement contract, with Rolex. His was the most anticipated pro debut in a very long time.
That Thursday at Pebble he shot 68 and was tied for third place. The next day he shot 81 and was on his way home. The wild, what-will-Phil-do-next ride was officially underway. And along the way he would win three AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am titles at Pebble Beach, in 2007 with the record-tying score of 268.
Early in 1993 Phil won his first title as a pro at Torrey Pines, where he also played his high school golf matches, and another pattern was set. His first two and six of his first seven Tour wins came on the West Coast. By 2008, 16 of his 34 had come during the season-opening West Coast swing. In claiming the 2008 Northern Trust Open title at Riviera he joined Johnny Miller and Billy Casper as the only other winner of the West Coast Slam: Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, the Mercedes, the Hope, Pebble Beach and Los Angeles. The next year he won again in Los Angeles, making it 17 of 35 career wins on the Left Coast.
In 1994 Phil watched 64-year-old Arnold Palmer trudge through searing heat and wilting humidity in the U.S. Open in Oakmont. It was Arnold’s last stand in the national championship and by day’s end he was stooped. Still, he spent more than an hour with the media and the volunteers, and Phil saw the enormous effect it had on those people. It was then and there that he decided to emulate Palmer, all these years later whether he shoots 64 or 74, he meets daily with the media and signs autographs for fans.
Other patterns emerged early, too. After skipping the GTE Byron Nelson Championship for two years Phil received a personal invitation from Lord Byron in 1996 and returned to win at TPC Las Colinas. That began a long and close relationship between the two men – Phil didn’t miss another appearance as long as Nelson was alive – and it was his third of 10 wins through 2008 on TPC courses. One of those, the 2006 BellSouth Classic, came at 28 under par, a personal best and third-best all-time on a par-72 course.
The spring of ’96 also marked Phil’s best finish in the Masters, a solo third, which he would repeat three more times. It was his fourth placement of joint seventh or better in his 11 major appearances as a pro and it confirmed his boyhood belief that he’d join Ballesteros in the Champions Locker Room at Augusta one day. Before that though, he would suffer major disappointment.
At the 1999 Pinehurst Open he carried a beeper so his wife, Amy, could tell him when the birth of their first child was imminent. Phil didn’t get the call until after Payne Stewart one-putted five of the last seven holes, including the last, to win by a stroke. That made him 0-for-21 in majors. Three years later at difficult Bethpage Black Phil made 10 birdies in the last 31 holes and won the hearts of New York-area fans but finished second by three strokes.
In late March of 2003, Amy nearly died with her newborn son, Evan, due to serious complications at the birth. That near-death experience sapped Phil. A third at Augusta, for the third straight year was his lone top-10 of the season and at the end of the year he made a significant change.
Rick Smith has been working on Phil’s long game since the end of 1999 but now Dave Pelz was recruited primarily to help Phil develop a plan to win major championships and, by extension, change the way he approached the game. Out was the hit-it-and-find-it philosophy that had brought 21 wins. In was a new focus on hitting fairways and playing percentages around the greens, and extensive scouting of major championship venues and preparation for the shots required there.
It paid off handsomely. He arrived at Augusta with two drivers in his bag, one built to help hit it long, the other for controlled fades. On the first tee Sunday he had his first share of the lead after 54 holes in a major championship. Tied with Erne Els on the 12th tee Sunday, Phil hit an 8-iron to six feet and made birdie there and added birdies at 13, 14 and 16. Chris DiMarco narrowly missed a putt on 18, but Phil’s birdie on the same line caught the low edge and, as CBS commentator Jim Nantz wondered aloud, “Is it his time?” the ball slipped in, prompting a celebratory leap on that green and among Mickelson fans around the world. Their major wait was over.
The win made it clear that Phil’s major prep work was working. Later that year at Shinnecock Hills he finished second in the U.S. Open after catching the leader on the 70th hole only to fall back on the 71st. At Royal Troon in July Phil finished third, a stroke out of the playoff. And in August he shared sixth when a desperate eagle try on the last hole failed and he missed the Whistling Straits PGA Championship playoff by two strokes.
Phil got his revenge in the 2005 PGA when he slept on at least a share of the lead for four nights because the finish was delayed by weather until Monday morning. He played the last three holes that day, and like the year before at Augusta he needed a birdie on the last hole to win. His drive found the center of the 18th fairway, and for luck he tapped the plaque that marks Jack Nicklaus’ historic shot into that green in the 1980 U.S. Open. Phil’s approach to the elevated par-5 drifted slightly right and settled in gnarled grass almost hole-high. Drawing on the experience gained in his backyard so many years before, he gouged his third to two feet and tapped in for the title.
He had slipped the Masters green jacket onto Tiger Woods in 2005, but the roles were reversed in 2006. Phil again had the 54-hole lead and, despite having to play a weather-delayed 31 holes on Sunday, cruised through the final round and marched up the final fairway with a three-stroke lead for this third major in as many years.
These major wins changed the way Phil was perceived on the course, but he was making other off-course adjustments, too. In 2003 he began playing on behalf of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a Tampa-based group that provides college grants for children whose Special Operations parents had been lost in battle or training. He contributed $100 for each birdie and $500 for each eagle but even more than those funds he raised awareness in the national need to aid military support groups.
The following year Homes for Our Troops joined Phil’s list of beneficiaries. The group, based in Taunton, Massachusetts, retrofits or builds new homes for severely wounded veterans of the current wars. And in 2005, prompted by the needs Phil was so publicly addressing, the PGA Tour launched Birdies for the Brave, an umbrella effort that benefitted Phil’s and others’ groups. Now several organizations received hundreds of thousands of needed dollars annually.
Phil and Amy were busy giving at home, too. In 2005 they began Start Smart, which annually hosts 1,500 San Diego County elementary schoolchildren, selected on the basis of need and achievement, and treats them to a back-to-school shopping spree.
The Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation focus is on education and family issues, and another perfect fit is the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, also begun in 2005. Hundreds of elementary school math and science teaches are brought together each summer to learn innovative ways to inspire students to pursue a career in the sciences. In 2008 the Mickelsons testified to the importance of the project and increased government spending to support math and science learning.
But all this off-course activity didn’t hinder Phil’s on-course progress. Early in 2007 Butch Harmon replaced Rick Smith as Phil’s swing coach and the results came startling quickly. Less than a month after they started working together Phil went on a tear, in consecutive starts tying for third at the Byron Nelson and Wachovia before winning “the fifth major,” the PLAYERS Championship, on Mother’s Day.
The fun ended there, though. Desperate to atone for his 72nd-hole loss in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in ’06, Phil prepped long and hard at Oakmont, where the pre-Open rough was deep and thick. He injured his left wrist, and he was forced to withdraw from The Memorial just two weeks before the Open. He returned, but was severely limited for three months. His string of 30 consecutive cuts made in majors, including 14 top-10 finishes, ended at Oakmont and after missing just five cuts in 15 years he missed another at the British Open.
Phil had only missed time due to injury once before and that time he was able to make the most of it. In 1994 a skiing accident cost a broken leg and four months of playing time but it was in that span that he began to take flying lessons, and eventually he was rated to fly the Citation 5 series. All through his painful summer of ’07 he rehabbed his wrist while he played, gamely if ineffectively, through the majors season. Somehow by late August was back on form, taking the Deutsche Bank Championship at the TPC Boston over one of the strongest fields of the year.
His two wins in 2008 were notable for several reasons. He had been edged in the Northern Trust Open the year before, his first appearance there in six years. This time he was coming off a rare missed cut, his first at Pebble Beach, but won in dominating fashion, ranking 10th in greens in regulation eighth in putting and first in birdies, with 20. Just after that win he did a series of commercials on behalf of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. In May he brought five wedges to Colonial, where in 2000 he came from six shots behind with a Sunday 63 to win. Tied on the last tee this time, he needed the gap wedge to loft a shot from the left rough, under one tree, over another and onto the green for a winning 8-foot putt.
The 2009 season was one of triumph and tribulation. Phil successfully defended a title for the fifth time in his career, at the Northern Trust Open, when like only Ben Hogan before him, he finished 2-1-1 in consecutive seasons. His 34th career win was also his 17th on the West Coast swing. Two starts later, at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral, he spent Saturday night in an urgent care center receiving treatment for dehydration, then spent Sunday winning the title in a stirring duel with Nick Watney. Paired with Tiger Woods in the final round of the Masters, Phil tied the front-nine record with 30 and jumped into contention, only to fall back with a wet double-bogey on No. 12. Still, his fifth-place finish was his 10th top-10 at Augusta in his last 11 visits.
One month later, Phil and Amy were struck with the news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In June, he battled back from an eight-stroke deficit at the start of the sodden U.S. Open’s final round to briefly gain the lead late, only to bogey 15 and 17 and finish second for a record fifth time. He decided to skip the British Open to spend time with Amy in July. That ended his streak of 61 consecutive major championships appearances, the longest among active players. Mired in a season-long putting slump, Phil struggled through the last portion of the season until he asked Dave Stockton for help. The results were immediate: come-from-behind victories in the Tour Championship, and the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, that being an unofficial Tour win.
The 2010 season shaped up as a landmark one for Phil. It would be his 18th on the PGA Tour and he would turn 40 in June. It did not get off to a blazing start
He opened the year at Torrey Pines in the newly-named Farmers Insurance Open but made more news off the course than on it. In an effort to draw attention to the loophole in the rules that allowed the use of certain square-grooved club, he used one, and another player called him a cheater, which generated headlines worldwide. Phil said his aim was not to gain an advantage on the field but to push the governing bodies toward a new resolution on that loophole and to encourage the governing USGA to bring manufacturers into the process of setting new club standards. Weeks later the loophole was closed. He managed to piece together a share of 8th place at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but skipped the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship to accompany Amy to cancer treatments. That closed the book on his poorest start on the Coast since 2002. In his first seven starts he managed just one top-10, 15 of his 28 rounds were in the 70s, and five of those were over par. And then he arrived at Augusta.
He opened with 67 and was within two strokes of the lead after each of the first three rounds. Trailing Lee Westwood Saturday afternoon, in a 28-minute span Phil eagled 13, 14 and birdied 15 to draw even but finished the day one stroke back. Sunday Phil birdied No. 8 to share the lead, birdied 9 and shot 33 on the back for a bogey-free 67 and a three-stroke victory.
“What will Phil do next?” echoed through the golf world once again.