Twenty-six years ago newly crowned U.S. Amateur champion Phil Mickelson gave us a glimpse of what was to come. After forty-two PGA Tour victories, including five major championships, his record performances with the U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, and his World Golf Hall of Fame induction, we’re still waiting because he’s still on the move.
Phil was a 20-year junior at Arizona State University in 1991 when he won the PGA Tour’s Northern Telecom Open in Tucson. No amateur has won a Tour event since then.
His caddy that day was his college coach, Steve Loy, who the previous year watched Phil lead his team to the NCAA championship two months before he won the U.S. Amateur Championship. Only Jack Nicklaus had accomplished that double before and no one has done it since.
Loy would become Phil’s business manager and guiding light throughout his pro career. That Sunday in Tucson, though, he was the looper who helped keep Phil in the game after he made a triple-bogey eight on the 14th hole to fall behind Bob Tway, only to make birdies on 16 and 18 and win the tournament and a ticket to the Tour.
Phil turned professional at the 1992 U.S. Open and played 10 more events that season. He opened the next year, though, with a win in the inaugural Buick Invitational on Torrey Pines South, a municipal course where he played his high school matches. Phil was a stroke behind Dave Rummells after nine holes but made five birdies coming in and won by four. He kept the check but also won a car, which he promptly gave to his mother. She’s since switched vehicles but still uses the original license plate, FOREMA. Phil’s next Buick victory meant a car for Dad, whose plate reads THXSON.
Winning is everything to Phil, well, almost.
The car that came with his first Buick victory went to his mother, who still has the same license plate, FOREMA. The second Buick win benefitted his father, whose plate still shouts THXSON.
Family comes first for all the Mickelsons and in large measure that helps explain Phil’s success. His father was a Navy fighter jet pilot who later flew for commercial airlines. His attention to study, planning and detail was a matter of life or death. When he recognized his toddler son wouldn’t switch to hit right-handed, Phil Sr. adjusted and made a right-handed club into a lefty’s. He passed his driving forces on to his first son, and for that matter, to his daughter and second son, too.
Phil’s mother is the daughter of commercial fisherman, another man for whom both careful planning and taking risks was a way of life. He was as tough on a boat at sea as he was loving with his family and generous with neighbors, who often shared in his catch. At Christmas in 2003 he told Phil, “This is going to be your year.” Four months later his grandfather had died, and after Phil’s winning putt somehow fell into the low side of the last hole at the 2004 Masters and he stuck his victory leap, the entire family’s first thought was of the patriarch.
Along with Steve Loy, there was one other enormous influence on Phil, Arnold Palmer. It was a sweltering day at the 1994 U.S. Open, Palmer’s final appearance in the national championship, and the 64-year-old was physically spent after trudging up the last fairway with a damp towel around his neck. But less than an hour later he was in the volunteer tent shaking hands, signing autographs and thanking everyone for their support of him and the event.
Phil was on his way to the range after his own round but stopped for several minutes and took in the scene. When he returned from the range, he stopped again and watched Palmer, who still wasn’t finished in the tent. Seve Ballesteros was Phil’s model golfer as a child and he assiduously acquired many of Seve’s short game skills. It was his family and Palmer who gave Phil his people skills. To this day, after a good round or a poor one, Phil channels Arnold and spends time signing autographs and thanking people for their interest.
Phil was primed for an outstanding college career – 16 victories including two NCAA individual titles in four years at Arizona State University – along with the Northern Telecom Open. There was a tie to Palmer in those years, too, even before Phil was signing autographs. Seven strokes behind the leader at the start of the last round in the 1960 Open at Cherry Hills, Palmer made his move to the title early, boldly driving the first green. Phil did the same in the second round of the 1991 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills, then conceded a long par putt to his opponent and won 6&5. In the final match he defeated his high school teammate, Manny Zerman, 5&4.
That performance prompted a great deal of public and media speculation about whether Phil would stay in school or turn pro. And that escalated five months later when, as a junior at ASU, he won in Tucson. But an early departure was never in Phil’s plan. He earned PGA Tour membership that day and stayed in school for 18 months to earn his psychology degree.
Phil was not exactly green when he made his professional debut in the 1993 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. His maternal grandfather caddied there as a boy.
By then Phil had played in 19 professional events as an invitee but that Open was his sixth consecutive missed cut of the year. Again some people wondered what would come next but he made six of his last nine cuts that season with a runner-up finish at the New England Classic and was still on the radar as the 1993 season dawned.
The win in San Diego was impressive. Six months later he shared sixth in the PGA Championship at Inverness and a week later won The International, a Stableford event in Colorado. What followed were 10 wins in four years, a winless 1999 season, and eight wins in the next four years. By 2004 Phil had won 21 times but the question about what’s next would not go away: “When is he going to win a major championship?
It was nettlesome but not without merit. The so-called “best player never to win a major” had played 146 rounds in the big events and had led after only seven of them, none after the second round.
Introducing Phil to the media at the 2004 Masters, Chairman Billy Payne said Phil “has finished in the Top 10 at the Masters seven times in 11 appearances. He has finished no worse than seventh in the last five years. He’s played in 11 Masters and has had a beautiful record here.
Let’s begin by asking some questions, please.”
Knowing what was coming, Phil quickly added with a grin,
“But no wins.”
Again there were several questions about his record in majors. Five days later, the first question after the trophy presentation was, “You won your first (college) event in Augusta at the Forest Hills Collegiate Invitational. How does it feel getting your second win at Augusta?”
Grinning again, Phil said, “Well, something tells me that nobody else looks at it like that.”
Phil went on to win 19 times in the next six years and put the major championship question to bed.
- 2005 PGA Championship: Led the first four sweltering days at Baltusrol when thunderstorms delayed the finish until Monday. A birdie on the last hole beat Steve Elkington by a stroke.
- 2006 Masters: Phil was four shots back after the second round and due to a weather delay played only five holes Saturday. He took the lead on No. 8 in the final round, shot 69 and beat Tim Clark by three.
- The 2010 Masters: After a 6-iron off the pine straw right of the 13th fairway Sunday and making birdie to best Lee Westwood by three, was emotionally greeted by wife Amy just 11 months after her breast cancer surgery.
- 2013 Open Championship: Started the final round at Muirfield in ninth place five strokes adrift, shot the windy day’s-best 66 capped with a dramatic birdie on 18 and defeated Henrik Stenson by three strokes.
From 1999 through 2013, though, Phil’s run in the U.S. Open brought agony, not ecstasy. Six times he finished second, once by three strokes, three times by two and twice by one on the last hole, at Pinehurst in 1999 and Winged Foot in 2006. At Pinehurst, Phil made par on the last two holes but Payne Stewart birdied them. At Winged Foot, despite hitting just two fairways through 17 holes he was leading by a stroke on the 18th tee Sunday. His drive found deep rough behind a massive maple. Rather than pitching out and playing for par or maybe bogey, Phil played for the green, hit the tree and made double bogey to finish one behind Geoff Ogilvy.
Afterward, typically candid, he said, “I am such an idiot.”
Despondent as never before or since, he retuned to the home his family had rented for the week. Sensing his uncharacteristic mood, his 5-year-old daughter Amanda climbed into his lap and asked, “Did you win Daddy?”
When Phil said no, Amanda responded, “Second is so good Daddy. Do you want some pizza?”
And Phil was over it. Sort of.
One thing Phil has not and never will get over is the honor and excitement of representing America in international team play. He’s he only man to represent the U.S. in 10 Ryder Cup matches and all 11 Presidents Cups. Despite a winless 2015 PGA Tour season he was picked for The Presidents Cup in Korea and answered captain Jay Haas’ call with a 3-0-1 record in the U.S. victory. It was the first time Phil was a selection and not a qualifier for either international team.
Three weeks after his gut-wrenching loss at the 2005 U.S. Open, Phil was again in front of the media, this time at the Cialis Western Open in suburban Chicago. A year earlier the Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation began supporting two military charities, Special Operations Warrior Foundation and Homes For Our Troops by, donating $100 for each birdie and $500 for each eagle Phil made on Tour.
At the Cialis, along with PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem Phil and Amy announced the creation of Birdies for the Brave, a PGA Tour umbrella program that contributes to a number of military support organizations. In 10 years the program has raised more than $13 million for homefront military charities. In December 2012 Phil hosted a hugely successful weekend event that included two pro-ams, a concert and gala dinner to benefit the cause.
Later that year, the Mickelson Foundation created Start Smart, a program that annually invited 1,500 disadvantaged San Diego schoolchildren to participate in a back-to-school shopping spree. Kids and their teachers were bussed to a store and treated to clothing, school supplies and lunch. The results were beyond the Mickelsons’ dreams. They received many letters from teachers about their kids’ remarkable improvements made in attitude, attendance and grades as a result of the program. One was particularly moving. Three siblings who had regularly missed classes began attending daily and were doing very well. It turned out they had been missing school because before Start Smart they had to walk from their rural home to school and had only one pair of shoes to share.
Also in 2005, the Foundation partnered with ExxonMobil to create the ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, a five-day curriculum that gives 3rd, 4th and 5th grade teachers innovative tools to help motivate their young students in math and science. The Academy works with the National Science Teachers Association and Math Solutions to provide curriculum that supports teacher networking and development in inquiry-based instruction.
In announcing the partnership, Phil said, “Our children deserve the very best in math and science education, our nation needs it, and helping teachers teach seemed like the best way to approach a national challenge that has to be met.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Late in 2015, two and a half years after his last victory, Phil amicably parted ways with instructor Butch Harmon. Their association began shortly before Phil’s 2007 Players Championship victory and included 15 worldwide wins including the 2010 Masters and 2013 Open Championship.
“Butch is one of the great teachers the history of the game and I believe belongs in the World Golf Hall of Fame,” said Phil. “I’ve learned a great deal from him in our eight years together. It’s just that at the moment I need to hear new ideas from a different perspective.”
Now working with Andrew Getson, who is based at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale AZ, Phil was very encouraged by the early results of their collaboration and eager to begin his 26th year on the PGA Tour.
Next there is a winless streak to end. There are three more victories needed to join Walter Hagan at ninth on the all-time winner’s list with 45. There is another Ryder Cup team to make to extend his U.S. record to 11 and tie Europe’s Nick Faldo for most appearances in the event. There are plenty of more opportunities for Phil to be Phil in full.