BROOKLINE, Mass. — Phil Mickelson has played in front of some of golf’s largest and loudest crowds for nearly his entire career. For years, it was routine for Mickelson to step up to a tee box and be showered with words of encouragement that no one other than Tiger can top. A mere thumbs up would send a crowd into a frenzy. Now, surrounded by the controversial decision to join LIV Golf, Mickelson finds himself this week walking into an unknown crowd reaction for the first time in his illustrious career.
We saw a different Phil Mickelson at Monday’s press conference; would we see a different Mickelson crowd during his practice round Tuesday?
As Mickelson warmed up in the practice area, the crowd was rather subdued by Lefty standards. There wasn’t the same raucous reaction that greeted Rory McIlroy just minutes earlier when he walked across a catwalk back to the clubhouse. The same crowd was in wait-and-see mode for Mickelson to make the short walk from the practice green to the first tee alongside Jon Rahm and Kevin Na.
Once Mickelson stepped up to the tee box, there was applause, but nothing more than what any other household name might receive. Then it happened: “We love you, Phil!” shouted one fan stacked a few deep against the railing.
Just like old times, Mickelson turned his head and gave a gleeful thumbs-up to the crowd. His facial expression was one of gratitude. This wasn’t the stock smile Mickelson has flashed for decades. It looked and felt sincere after months of turmoil.
A few others from the crowd chimed in once the ice was broken. “Go, Phil” and “Let’s go, Lefty” were the most commonly heard phrases. With that, Mickelson was off after a pleasant, if not typical, first hole experience.
The sea of people that typically follow Mickelson’s every move mostly stayed put on the first tee.
Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and alternate Rickie Fowler were slated to tee off on No. 1 a half-hour after Mickelson. A common sentiment in the crowd was that fans were sticking around to follow three younger stars in the game. A changing of the guard in terms of popularity, or a sign that Mickelson has lost a grip on his loyal followers?
“My kids love JT, Rickie and Spieth,” said one father of two. “It’s nothing against Phil. I’m just trying to keep my kids happy. If it were up to me, I’d probably split my time between both groups. But they don’t have the same connection with him as me.”
Still, you would be hard-pressed to find a single fan booing or sharing a negative sentiment with Mickelson at The Country Club on Tuesday. Occasionally, a playful “Take that money, Phil!” or “Sox money line is the play tonight, Phil” — references to Mickelson’s well-known gambling history.
“The vibe was surprisingly positive I didn’t hear a single negative word said his way,” said Clifton from Dedham, Mass. “I’ll be cheering for him this week.”
It turns out Mickelson’s fans are willing to forgive, look the other way or just not care about recent events.
“Everyone still loves him,” said James from Boston. “It’s certainly an interesting time in his career and I’m sure there are people who disagree with what he did but he’s out here and people are still cheering for him. I mean, he’s Phil Mickelson. He’s still super likable.”
Many fans with whom we spoke viewed Mickelson’s move to LIV Golf as a business decision that they are willing to accept, because, they said, they might have done the same. While they might not openly cheer for him, they aren’t going out of their way to boo him, either.
“I’m not thrilled with Phil,” said Fran from Brookline. “I understand the money, I mean who is going to say no to that much? But I think at the end of the day he doesn’t need it. I don’t wish him ill. If someone offered me $200 million, I’d have to take it.
“The money is too much to say no to,” added Fran’s friend Lisa from Newport Beach. “I understand it but I don’t love it.”
The fans appear largely to be sticking Mickelson’s side — for now, anyway. But there’s still concern about the potential long-term impact.
“This is his profession. He made a decision that he feels is right for him,” said Bobby from Quincy, Mass. “Hopefully, he doesn’t regret it in the long run. I don’t want it to tarnish his legacy because he’s such a legend of the game.”
If Tuesday was any indication, Mickelson can expect a positive, if tamer, U.S. Open fan experience when Round 1 starts on Thursday.