Phil Mickelson’s adventurous play began when he was ‘a few years old’

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson hits a tee shot on Thursday during a practice round ahead of this week's Cologuard Classic.

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Phil Mickelson Sr. had a small putting green in the yard at their home in San Diego, and there was some room to hit shots into it. His oldest son had just started playing, and this was all kinds of fun.

Phil Mickelson Jr. was soon scheming for ways to make it even more so.    

“I’ve just always enjoyed playing like that and playing creatively,” Mickelson said Thursday. “It goes back to when I started hitting golf balls for the first time in my yard and my dad put a little putting green there and the same shot got boring. 

“I just didn’t want to do the same shot over and over, so I was moving the pins and tucking the pins, and then I started going in behind the trees and off of the dirt and creating more of a challenge so I would have to be creative and figure out how to hit those shots. It goes back to when I was just a few years old doing that in my yard.”

Phil the Thrill was born. It’s been 40-plus years of risks — adventurous angles off the tee, bold escapes and fearless lobs — and rewards — five major championships, 39 other PGA Tour events, bombs. 

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This week, Mickelson plays the Cologuard Classic on the Champions Tour, where he could become the first player to win his first three starts on the 50-and-over circuit. The tournament, too, is being played at Omni Tucson National, where 30 years ago, Mickelson won the Northern Telecom Open as an amateur, the last am to win on the PGA Tour. The three-decade span had him reminiscing about some of his remarkability. 

Like an 88-yard 8-iron he hit around a tree at Tucson National a few years after his win. 

“I love everything about the game of golf and I love trying to create shots, trying to come up with shots,” said Mickelson, who also won at Tucson National in 1995 and 1996. “One of the best shots I ever hit, I was even pointing it out today with my brother, Tim, was a shot I hit — it was No. 11 at the time and now it’s 15, the par 5. It was an 88-yard 8-iron that I had to slice around the trees and it side-spun all the way across that green down to that left pin. … 

“I still remember that because that ball spun on the green 80 feet to the side and went in. It was one of the greatest shots I’ve ever hit in my life. That’s the stuff that I really enjoy.”

Like the shot he wanted to try while he played at Arizona State. His coach with the Sun Devils, Steve Loy, was also his caddie for his victory in 1991. 

“I remember one time we were at McCormick Ranch and the last hole is this island fairway and you’ve got to hit over the water to the green,” Mickelson said. “I hit it on the left side of the grass and I was up against — like we used to have like 150 markers in the trees. So I didn’t have a left-handed swing; I had a right-handed swing. Coach was back there helping the guys 300, 400 yards away, and I wanted to flip over an 8-iron and hit it right-handed and try to knock it on the green.

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“So I’m kind of half-asking him from 400 yards away, “Hey, can I “— and I see Coach go like this [indicating.] All right. So I stand up over that shot and I’m about ready to swing and I hear, ‘Wait!’ I see him back there 400 yards. ‘Don’t! What are you doing?’ He’s telling me now to pause. Now I’ve got to wait for him to drive up. He says, ‘What are you doing? Just play it up, ensure your 5, we’ve got the team win,’ blah, blah, blah.

“He was right. That was the one time I listened to him, and he was right. Of course, he was right there and he knew what I was doing — that’s why I didn’t tell him half the time.”

After the Cologuard, Mickelson says he will return to the PGA Tour and play the Players Championship in two weeks, the Honda Classic the week after, the Texas Open at the start of April and then the Masters the week after that. He hasn’t been successful on the regular Tour as he has been on the Champions. Since last August’s PGA Championship, Mickelson’s played in 10 events and missed the cut in every other one. 

Still, just like he did on dad’s putting green, he’s scheming for ways to make it more fun.    

“I really do have the belief I can play and compete out there,” Mickelson said. “I just have not played my best, and I’ve been really hard on myself when I haven’t. When I go out and play at home, I’m playing well enough and shooting the scores to play and compete. When I get on Tour, I’m playing a little bit tight, which is not normal for me. So I’ve got to work on that.”

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Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor