Phil Mickelson’s trip to St. Andrews ended in a whimper
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — As Tiger Woods made his special walk up the 18th hole Friday at the Old Course, Phil Mickelson was as far away as he could conceivably be. Woods was showered with applause on 18, and brought to tears. Mickelson was out around the turn of this course, two miles of golf holes, spectators and seagulls away.
That may have been perfect for Mickelson. Had he been any closer, he may have heard the crowd’s raucous ovation. People filled up the balconies hanging off century-old buildings. Standing-room only in the grandstands. Thousands of others on the adjacent street, pinned up against the fence. It was a seminal moment in the golf year and in Woods’ career, perhaps his swan song at the game’s most hallowed ground.
Mickelson received nothing like it.
Maybe a couple hundred spectators hung around on the grandstands when Mickelson crossed the Swilcan Bridge two hours after Woods did. Only a few individuals called out his name. Fewer still bothered to take photos. Woods essentially made that trek on his own (out of respect from his playing partners), his hat in his right hand, held high in the sky. Mickelson ducked in line behind Lucas Herbert and his caddie, on and off the bridge in an instant. For two players whose careers have forever been linked, Friday was as visceral as reminders get: these two are the same in occupation only. Especially now.
The Mickelson we’ve been watching this year is the quietest version of him we’ve ever seen. He has quit engaging with his fans online. He’s gone cold with the press, and avoided ceremonial moments like this week’s Open Champions Dinner — only to promise he couldn’t be happier. Woods embraced the ceremony all week, even while his golf was ugly. He knows how quickly things can get zapped away.
Woods isn’t retiring, but he assumes the next Open in St. Andrews, at his favorite course on the planet, will not come until 2030. Jon Rahm said the same. That’s eight years from now, at which point Woods will be 54. Mickelson will be 60, the age most of the game’s legends tend to take a final lap at the Open Championship. Has he considered his final lap, or is that wildly premature? He is part of the reason why the R&A seems set on changing its exemption categories before staging the Open next summer. With the pace we’re at, the pro golf landscape will look wildly different then.
For now, all we have is Friday at the Old Course, in which Mickelson nodded and thumbs-upped his way around the property, and golf fans interacted like they tend to do in person, swooning respectfully. He has now played two PGA Tour events this year, missing the cut in both. He’s played two LIV Golf events this year, which are staged without a cut. He’s broken par just once. His golf at St. Andrews, he says, is close to being good. His aura is not.
In iterations past, Mickelson has taken part in the Celebration of Champions pre-tournament hit-and-giggle. This week, it was suggested he pass, and he agreed. In past years, he’s paused to take photos on the bridge or, at the very least look up as he was cheered on. Today, there was no cheer. Mickelson kept his head down. Woods, by comparison, posed for photos on the bridge all week, including a solo pic with Jack Nicklaus. That picture will be printed in the World Golf Hall of Fame, if it hasn’t already. Same for the photos of Woods walking up 18 Friday afternoon.
Following the ovation, Woods talked with the press for 13 minutes. He’s never seemed more at peace with shooting nine over. He went deep on his emotions, about how much respect he felt from Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas as he passed them in the fairway. He talked about how “it felt the whole tournament was right there,” on 18, as he tapped in for a finishing par.
Mickelson made birdie on 18, which earned him the requisite smattering of applause. He signed for a missed cut just like Woods did, then R&A media relations informed his team there were three journalists waiting to speak with him.
The media relations staffer quickly whipped around the corner to pass along the word: “Guys, that was a firm ’No.’”