On the night of his unlikely PGA Championship win, somewhere in the hours between the mosh pit on the 18th fairway and the wine-inspired tweetstorm, Phil Mickelson found time for a phone call with an old friend: Charles Barkley.
“I talked to him that night,” Barkley said on a call with reporters Wednesday. “I was so happy for him.”
Barkley was as surprised as anyone by the victory. He was impressed that a 50-year-old had won a major, for one thing. But he was just as impressed that Mickelson had outdueled his playing partner, notorious major championship killer Brooks Koepka.
“Not only was he 50, he stood up to Brooks. So that was pretty impressive,” Barkley said.
But this is Charles Barkley we’re talking about, so he couldn’t talk about Mickelson for long without tossing in a jab. The two were a team at last year’s edition of The Match, where they took down Steph Curry and Peyton Manning. Barkley said the experience told him plenty about his partner.
“Phil Mickelson is a great friend of mine. I’ve known him a long time, him and Amy. They’re awesome. But Phil is that annoying friend. When you ask him a question, instead of answering your question — like, if you say, ‘Hey, what’s the weather like?’ he says, ‘You want the humidity, the barometric pressure, the high and low for the day?’
“No, man, I just want the damn weather. Tell me what the temperature is right now.”
The same is true, Barkley said, on the greens. Golf fans saw that firsthand in November, when Mickelson coached him through the intricacies of nearly every shot, with at least moderate success.
“As great a guy he is, when you ask him a question, like, ‘Yo, what do you think of this putt?’ ‘Well it’s down-grain, it’s into the grain, it’s going to pull towards the valley.’ Yo, man, just tell me where to hit the putt. I ain’t got time to be analyzing down-grain, up-grain, it’s pulling toward the valley.”
Mickelson called Barkley two days before the Match — the day before Thanksgiving.
“He says, ‘Hey, I’m flying up — I want you to drive up and play a practice round with me,'” Barkley remembered. “I’m like, ‘Dude, tomorrow’s Thanksgiving.’
“He’s like, ‘No, no, we need to get a practice round in. I’m flying in from San Diego.’ I’m like, ‘Yo, man, it’s Thanksgiving.’ And I have to spend my Thanksgiving day driving two hours to play a practice round for a charity event? That’s how crazy he is. But that’s how bad he wanted to win.”
“I was like, ‘Yo, man, okay, it’s Thanksgiving, don’t worry about it. I’ll drive up, we’ll play a practice round.'”
Barkley told the story on a call ahead of next month’s American Century Classic, the Lake Tahoe celebrity event where he wins at the microphone but traditionally finishes near the bottom of the field when it comes to the actual golf. Barkley isn’t like Mickelson; he’s not trying to reverse the aging process. But he’s looking for a golf resurgence nonetheless. He’s been working tirelessly with instructor Stan Utley and has seen results that have reversed his entire on-course experience.
“To say I’d been struggling on the golf course is the biggest freakin’ understatement in the history of civilization,” Barkley said. “You know, I just want to play and have fun. Listen, it hasn’t been fun for me for 25 years to play golf.”
It wasn’t that Barkley didn’t want to get better — he just didn’t know how.
“You know, when you get old and fat there’s only a couple of things you can do: golf and fish. And I’m a lot better fisherman than I am a golfer,” he said. After two decades of struggle, he’d all but given up the game.
“I only played in Lake Tahoe. And I played if like, a friend wants me to embarrass myself at his charity event and raise some money,” he said. “I can live with that.”
But Utley insisted that he could quiet Barkley’s mind and fix his swing. During their first session, he asked a probing question: “When you stand over the ball, how many people are talking to you?”
Barkley said he had 10 different voices in his head. The pair worked to start over and keep things simple. So far, so good.
“Man, it’s so much more fun to go out and hit a bunch of good shots. I feel really good, really good about where I am. I just gotta keep working harder.”
As for his expectations at Tahoe? One reporter told Barkley that multiple sportsbooks are offering a prop: 15-1 odds that he’ll finish in the top 70 of the 80-something player field. Barkley’s eyes lit up.
“You need to let me know what casino that is, because I want some of that,” he said. “Listen, man: I’m going to finish in the top 70. You need to put more than $100 on me.”
Maybe he can bring in Mickelson to caddie.