Phil Mickelson’s Pebble Beach Drama Lacked Only His Long-Time Rival

February 17, 2016

Last Saturday night I was having beers with Geoff Ogilvy in the crowded lobby bar within the Inn at Spanish Bay. All of Pebble Beach — and, indeed, the golf world — was buzzing about Phil Mickelson, who had roared to a two-stroke lead through 54 holes. Every snippet of conversation around the bar seemed to be about Phil the Thrill, who was in position for the one of the more momentous victories of his Hall of Fame career: It would break a 31-month victory drought and tie him with Mark O’Meara for the most wins in tournament history, at five.

With apologies to O’Meara, Mickelson is the king of Pebble Beach, beloved by the galleries and a regular at seemingly every sparkly dinner party during tournament week. Soaking in the lovefest for Mickelson, I felt a certain pang for one of his contemporaries who has been denied anything close to a similar victory lap. “Who would have imagined,” I said to Ogilvy, “that Phil would outlast Tiger?”

“Nobody saw that coming,” Ogilvy said, taking a swig of his Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “But in hindsight it’s blindingly obvious. Tiger was effectively famous at age three. Has any athlete ever lived under that microscope the way he did? Oh, you won the U.S. Junior? Now do it again. And again. Turn pro? Now you gotta win the Masters. To this day when he wakes up there’s the expectation that he’s still Tiger Woods. At some point it’s going to wear you down.”

Fame has always been a complication for Woods but, to paraphrase a line Jack Nicklaus often employs about Arnold Palmer, no one could ever enjoy being Phil Mickelson as much as Phil Mickelson does. That lightness of being sustains him even at age 45.

Woods established, and was expected to surpass, the highest of standards, but we’ve never wanted anything from Mickelson other than entertainment. His final round at Pebble was amusing and exasperating, heroic and tragic. Ultimately he fell a shot short, after missing a five-foot birdie putt at the last that would have produced a playoff with Vaughn Taylor.

Afterward Mickelson was typically buoyant, saying, “The positive is that I’m having more fun playing golf right now than I’ve had in years.”

You have to wonder if those words made their way to Tiger’s compound in South Florida, where he’s holed up and recovering from his latest surgery. It’s a rich metaphor: The most physically fit golfer of all time has been sidelined by a bad back, perhaps the result of carrying around such crushing expectations for so long. In private, Woods has always loved to make fun of Mickelson’s dad-bod, but who is having the last laugh? Woods’s swing always exuded violence, and that has added to the strain. Mickelson’s action was the image of California mellowness, and it has kept him whole. 

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It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Woods to look to Mickelson for inspiration. They grew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 miles but linked by their talent. Older by 51Ž2 years, Mickelson loomed over Woods’s early golfing life. “Phil was an icon to us,” says Chris Riley, one of Tiger’s friends from junior golf. 

Woods’s late father, Earl, always received most of the credit for his son’s competitive spirit, but it is mom Tida who sharpened Tiger’s killer instinct. With her it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger was considered not just a competitor but also a threat. So it became Woods’s mission to erase Mickelson’s numerous junior records.

Similarly, Tiger’s historic excellence around the turn of the century inspired Phil to work harder. In 2006 he came up with a clever line: “If Tiger is the best player of all time and I start beating him regularly, what does that make me?” 

Mickelson has 42 career victories and, setting aside the five majors, probably the most memorable one came at Pebble Beach in 2012, when he was paired with Woods in the final group on Sunday and dusted him, 64-75. “I just feel very inspired when I play with him,” Mickelson said after posting the better score for the fifth straight time when partnered with Woods in a final round. 

At that moment in time each was building toward something larger. In 2013, Tiger would return to the top of the World Ranking, a long, slow journey back after his golf, and life, had been derailed by scandal. That same year Phil would take the British Open at Muirfield.

Since then Woods, now 40, has fallen into the abyss. Mickelson’s play has been uneven, but he has remained relevant, with runner-up finishes in a couple of majors, a starring role at last fall’s Presidents Cup and two top-three finishes in 2016 as he’s been rejuvenated by a swing change and some new toys in his bag. 

It’s now fairly easy to imagine Mickelson joining Nicklaus as a 46-year-old major championship winner. Meanwhile, many folks wonder if Woods will ever tee it up again on Tour. No matter what happens, neither will ever again be the player he was.

Mickelson spoke on Sunday about being “nervous” and “tight”…and that was battling the likes of Taylor, Jonas Blixt and Toshi Izawa. But even with his unsteady play, it was a thrill to have Phil in contention again. It was also a glum reminder of how much we miss his greatest rival.