For the premiere episode of GOLF LIVE, host Ryan Asselta sat down with Phil Mickelson a week before Mickelson narrowly missed winning his 43rd PGA Tour title at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In a wide-ranging discussion, the 45-year-old discussed his resurgent game, why he can still thinks he can win that elusive U.S. Open trophy, and why no one in the game is “remotely close” to playing at the level that Tiger Woods did in his prime. (For video highlights of the interview, click here.)
GOLF LIVE: You said you were optimistic, yet nervous, heading into 2016. Have you ever gone into a season feeling that way?
MICKELSON: Somewhat. But I know that I’ve put in a lot of the work in the offseason to get the fundamentals, and get my swing back on point. And quite honestly, you know, Butch [Harmon, Mickelson’s long-time coach until November] is the best instructor the game has probably ever seen. I think he deserves a place in the Hall of Fame. And I probably just wasn’t listening to him. It was probably the same thing being said, but from a different voice and a different perspective.
And so Andrew [Getson, Mickelson’s new coach] and I have spent the last couple of months really getting the swing point down. And what’s happened is now that my swing is on point, all the little feel through impact, the little fade, the little draw, all that is starting to come back. And so I know that my game is back on the right track, and I know that I’m starting to play at a high level again.
I’m getting results oriented. I have to be patient. That’s the one challenge is being patient. If I can just relax and take it slow, the results will come a lot quicker.
Your life has changed personally and professionally in the 25 years since you made your Tour debut. What motivates you right now? Majors? The career grand slam? Something else?
It’s more just the love of the game. The game of golf has been very therapeutic for me because it provides a form of meditation, where, when I’m on the golf course, all I do is focus on the next shot, seeing what I want to accomplish, trying to feel the challenge of it. The challenge of the game, I love.
I love the social element of playing with friends. I love the competitive element of smack talk on a Tuesday [Laughs] or the tournament competition throughout the week. I love everything that golf provides, all the great things that this game has given to a number of people. I actually enjoy every aspect of that.
That love of the game is really what has me motivated, and the fact that I see an opportunity, as great as the young players are. I also know that there are areas that can be exposed if I play at the level that I know I can play. And I just won’t tolerate playing below what I know I can do. That’s why I’ve spent so much time this offseason working on it and getting it right. And I know it’s going to come, because I can see the difference, I can feel the difference.
If you look at my divot pattern, the way the divot is, they had been off, they had been toe deep, meaning that they have not been square like a dollar sign. They’ve been kind of angular. And now they’re back to a dollar sign. So I know the impact is correct.
All the details that you look for to make sure that your swing and your game is on, I know are back. I just have to be a little patient with the results, because it has been a couple years since I’ve played at a high level. So the tendency is to start to force the issue.
You’ve become friendly with Rickie Fowler over the last few years, playing a lot of practice rounds. Obviously he hasn’t won his first major yet. Have you talked with him about Augusta, and trying to win that first major to just get over that hump?
He’ll face the same challenge in major championships that I’m feeling right now, and that is to kind of be patient with it. Because the tendency is to force that issue that one week. But his game is there, and he knows that his game is there. In fact, I haven’t seen a greater improvement since he went to work with Butch a year and a half ago than Rickie Fowler.
His game in the last year-and-a-half, since he’s working with Butch, has taken on a whole different level. His ball striking is at an extremely high level. I played with him some of the offseason, and it’s very impressive. So he’s got a very complete game that, if he’s just patient with it, his game will click at the right moments without having to force it.
You haven’t advised him on the high tops, have you?
[Laughs] Well, look, part of it is that I have not seen [that style] in the decades that I’ve been out on Tour. And part of it is jealousy, because there’s no way I could pull that off.[Laughs] Not many people can, yet I feel like he’s doing it.
You mentioned those Tuesday matches with the young guys, the Dustin Johnsons, the Rickies, the Brendan Steeles. Does playing with those guys on Tuesday keep you young?
It is so much fun. The smack talk that you would never do in a tournament, to say those things on a Tuesday, and now that everybody feels comfortable with each other, we’re all dishing it out. It’s coming from all angles. And that’s really what’s so fun about that and about those relationships, that we can do that stuff.
It’s just a side of the game that you don’t get to experience all that often. You have the time when you play with your family and when you play with your spouse, or you have the time where you play alone, and the solitude of it. You have the tournament golf. But being with friends and talking smack and if you out-drove them a little bit, [Laughs] or if you get a little bit closer, or if you made a putt, all those things just make it really fun.
But what I love about those Tuesday games is that you get to identify where your game is at, because you’re really trying. You’re not just out hitting a multitude of shots. You’re really trying. And if you see a weakness in your game, you now have a day and a half to get ready to work on it before the Thursday start.
You’ve won five majors. How many do you think you should have won?
Probably about what I’ve won.
Really? Despite all the close calls?
The only one that I would say I probably should have won was the ’06 U.S. Open [at Winged Foot], and even that I can’t say it with all sincerity, because I drove it so poorly that week. I probably shouldn’t have even been in contention.
But when I got to the last hole with a one-shot lead, I should have been able to make par on that last hole. [Mickelson badly blocked his drive and made double-bogey.] That’s the only one that I would say I probably should have had [won]. There were a number of opportunities, but it’s hard for me to say what number I should or shouldn’t have had. I do think I’m going to add to my total, though.
What makes you think that at age 46 you can win your first U.S. Open?
Because when I play at the level I know I’m capable of, I don’t think there’s anybody else that can [beat me].
Do you see age as just a number at this point?
I do, because five years ago, when I got diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, I had to be accountable for my own health. It was the best thing that happened to me. Because I had to account for what I ate, what I drank — inflammation that was in my body, things that I didn’t think about when I was younger.
Now I eat totally different. I haven’t had a soda in five years. I don’t drink or eat dairy that much; I’ve cut 80-90% of it out. I eat very little, if any, processed sugar. And all these things have led to an inflammation marker of basically zero in my body. And so I’ve been able to reduce my [arthritis] medicine by 75%.
I wake up feeling better than I have in a long time. I am able to practice hard. I’m able to recover. And I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do now that I could do 10 years ago.
Does this year’s U.S. Open venue, Oakmont, fit your game?
It’s a hard golf course. It’s not like Augusta, where I’d walk on the premises and I just know I’m going to play well and be tough to beat. It’s a course where you have to know how to play it effectively, be patient and kind of manage your way around for 72 holes better than anybody else.
I’ve studied that golf course, and have the notes from the past few years, to where I feel like I can develop a game plan that is the right plan to win. But I still have to implement it. I still have to perform it and execute.
Let’s move on to the Ryder Cup. When you look back at 2014, with what happened between you and Tom Watson, does that further motivate you to make the team?
I’m going to answer that indirectly by saying this: When I have played now for the last 20 years in Ryder Cups, I’ve seen the European team and their players play at a higher level at the Ryder Cup, in the team format, than they’ve ever played individually. I can go back to guys like Philip Walton and Phillip Price and [Ignacio] “Nacho” Garrido, and I can even say modern players like Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, as great of players as they are, I’ve seen their best golf in the Ryder Cup.
And what happens, I believe, is that when you get together as a team and you come together as a unit and work together, you lift each other up to greater heights. When things start to go wrong, you’re there to pull them up and get through it. When you start doing things right, you push each other to achieve even better greatness. And that’s an area, because we haven’t had the same type of investment in the players — meaning they haven’t had an opportunity to be involved like they have in the Presidents Cup — we haven’t been able to work together in that same unity, per se. We haven’t had the same leadership, the same guidance, the same consistency from Ryder Cup to Ryder Cup.
I see that changing in 2016. Doesn’t mean we’re going to win. What it means is that we’re going to start playing our best golf in that event and start bringing our best out in each other and working together as a unit, much like we did in ’08, the way Zinger [Paul Azinger] was able to get some of our best golf out of us. I think we’re going to start to see that.
Davis Love is the captain; Tiger, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, your contemporaries, are assistants. Did Davis ask you to be an assistant?
We talked about that, because he wanted to name the assistant captains early. And I said, “Look, I’m going to be on the team.” I already know that my game has taken a whole different direction than it has the last couple years. I know where it’s at from where it’s been. In the last three months, I have put a lot of work in.
It’s identifiable through things like the divot pattern that I talked about, about how it’s more like a dollar bill rather than a starting angular. I know that the work that I’ve put in is paying off. And I know that when I play at the level I know I can play at, I’ll [earn a place] on the team. I’m actually not worried about that. So I don’t want to be named a vice captain, because I do not want to be a playing vice captain. I want to be on the team.
This year, if you had your choice between a U.S. Open title or playing on a winning Ryder Cup team, which would you take?
That’s a tough one. I don’t think I can answer that. They both would mean a lot to me. To fulfill the career grand slam while winning the U.S. Open, it’s hard to think there would be anything more precious to me than that in my career. But to be a part of the turnaround of the Ryder Cup and the U.S. side, as much as I love and care about the U.S. success and have been part of such a low point throughout Ryder Cups, it would mean a lot to me to be a part of that tournament.
Let’s talk about the current state of the Tour. Tiger, of course, is not playing right now. Can golf return to the level it was when Tiger was at his peak, when the two of you were going head to head? Can that happen without Tiger on the course?
I don’t think anybody really knows. But we have a lot of great young players in the game. And if you look at the top four right now, with Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, those four guys are quality — quality people, too. They represent the game well. They’re wonderful guys to be around. And they have remarkable games.
But there is nobody in the game of golf that I have seen that is remotely close to the level of performance Tiger was in his prime.
Mentally, short game, or ball striking, I don’t think anybody matches him in any of those areas. And Tiger put them all together in one to create a career that is mind-boggling.
So it’s difficult for me to see the game of golf returning to the level that it was at during his heyday without somebody like that. And as great as the young players are, the level that I’ve seen out of him, especially when you go back to 2000 at the U.S. Open and his performance when he held all four major championships at once, I think we’re decades away from anybody getting back to that level.
It seemed like you’ve always brought your game to a high level when you’ve either gone up against Tiger head to head, at least in the same field. Do you agree with that?
I played less-than-my-best golf early, up until about 2007, when I played with Tiger. And then I played my best golf from 2007 on, when I was with Tiger. … If you look at the record, I don’t know exactly what it says, but he owned me, head to head, until ’07, and since then it is flipped. There have been a few little nuances and things that I’ve kind of picked up that have helped me bring out my best golf. But I can’t say that I played my best golf throughout my career with him, because that’s not the case over the course of my entire career.
Of the so-called Big Four — Fowler, McIlroy, Day and Spieth — is there one that, in your mind, seems better suited to winning multiple majors and doing it consistently, where they get to a level of Tiger’s 14 titles, or even Jack’s number?
Possibly one, yes.
I’m not going to say that. [Laughs] That’s quite a little tease for you.
All right. [Laughs] What advice today would you give to your 21-year-old self?
It’s the same advice that I had been given at that time by a number of players. Whether it’s “enjoy the moment” and “it goes quick,” to “play to win,” and “don’t wait for somebody to give it to you.” Little things like that that have kind of accumulated over the years.
Over these past 25 years, what is your greatest accomplishment?
If I look back on a 25-year career, having the success on the golf course and having my spouse, Amy, and three kids grow up together in a loving home and become the people they’ve become, and have a successful family life and a successful career is probably my greatest accomplishment. Obviously, I can’t do that without Amy. She’s an incredible wife and incredible mother. And I just couldn’t do it without her. So I think it’s kind of that team that we form to basically travel together. It was very difficult for her, very difficult for both of us, to have the kids out [on Tour] the first 10 years or so.
Now things are busy, and it’s hard to get them out of school. But having that time together and not missing out on so many parts of their life as they were growing up, while still having a successful career that requires me to travel as much as I do, I think that’s my greatest accomplishment. And again, I couldn’t have done it without Amy.