Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Fake or Not, Mickelson’s Third Masters Was Great
You can call Phil Mickelson a lot of things — Lefty, People's Champion, FIGJAM, phony, corny, know it all. Love him or hate him, he can now be called three time Masters champion. He joins the pantheon of Masters lore. Eight men have combined to win more than a third of the Masters ever played. With his win on Sunday, Mickelson joins the esteemed company of players to have won three or more green jackets.
As he relates to the Tiger Era, Mickelson now trails Woods by one Masters title. While Woods has been on his drive for five since 2006, Mickelson has won two green jackets. Yes, Mickelson trails Woods by a whole 10 major championships in total. Still, it seems like Mickelson could not be riding higher at this point in his professional career.
Somewhere in the fall of 2009, Phil Mickelson found something in his game with both Dave Stockton and teacher Butch Harmon. It allowed MIckelson to win the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions in the fall, both with Woods in the field — and both before Tiger Woods' world came apart.
Looking back, perhaps the victories seem to mean a little less now knowing that Woods was juggling a triple life — pro golfer, sleezebag, and husband. After November 27 and the ensuing weeks, it became clear that golf would continue on without Tiger Woods for a prolonged period. Mickelson was the de facto number one, while Woods would remain so in name and truth. Mickelson was leading multiple lives, though, as well.
The fact of the matter is that for nearly a year now, Mickelson and his wife Amy have faced her battle with breast cancer together. She has been engaged in a protracted battle against the disease. There have been complications. Mickelson — typically a pretty open book with the media — has been reluctant to share details, merely saying that he would be skipping the Accenture Match Play in February while his wife was undergoing additional cancer treatment.
What was Tiger Woods doing that week? Commandeering global attention to deliver a thirteen minute apology speech across the country as a cannonball aimed at the sponsor that dropped him for his behavior.
Like it or not, Phil Mickelson was the antithesis of Tiger Woods in this Masters. He brought his family to the tournament — for the first time since last year's Players Championship. Callaway Golf did not air an exploitative ad about his wife and mother's illnesses. Mickelson was understated in his approach, but was clearly confident that he could find a way to win his third Masters.
In fact, in some ways, Woods was forced to channel his inner Lefty. He was over-the-top nice to media in his Monday press conference. Woods signed an inordinate number of autographs. There was smiling and goofing around, instead of his usual laser-like focus in practice rounds. And what did Woods get from media (golf and otherwise), the patrons, and PR observers? Praise, surprise, and compliments. Woods earned credit for being like Phil Mickelson.
On a weekly basis, Mickelson critics cannot bear to give him credit for doing the very same things that many of them likely cheered Woods for doing — and at that, just once and in a very transparent fashion. Why didn't Woods do this sooner, they asked. When it comes to Phil, they ask when he will stop.
In winning his third Masters, Mickelson fired the fourth lowest score in the history of the championship. From the early reaction to his victory, it almost seems to be an afterthought at how well Mickelson played in light of everything he has gone through. Had Woods fired -16, won by three, and putted out of his mind, there would have been talk that this was the greatest comeback in sporting history. Mickelson will never get that kind of hyperbole even though he has clearly dealt with so much more than Woods.
The embrace that Mickelson shared with his wife in back of 18 green after securing the title was genuine. It was real. It was moving. That tear was not a lie.
Mickelson is a schmooze. He is a kiss-ass. The guy is eager to show how smart he is. Lefty is the smart kid that you loved to hate in elementary school. I was Phil Mickelson when I was little. I heard the whispers about the bad things about me. People talked smack about me behind my back. And I know I heard it. Mickelson does, too. Should that make him more of a sympathetic character? No. But perhaps it can create some sense of empathy.
For people who ardently dislike Mickelson, want to know if he has an illegitimate child in Ohio, or think his wife had an affair with Michael Jordan, they won't empathize. They'll reference back to those rumors, the wedge thing, Tiger's "inferior equipment," and being an idiot at Winged Foot. This time was different, though. It really was.
It started on 18 with a three wood off of the tee. Mickelson remembered what an errant drive and too much gusto can do to bomb a championship. He made the final putt to win, leaving nothing in doubt. The victory celebration was muted, with a hug to his caddy, and then onto his family. The speech outside when he received his green jacket gave credit every which way to the people that have supported him, and it sounded real.
That's not to say that Mickelson will channel the better parts of Tiger Woods' approach, go on a tear, and become a cultural icon. Mickelson will still say "gosh" instead of "God damn," and almost never make YouTube for an outburst. He will take a stand on silly equipment issues. We will all roll our eyes, shake our heads, and be dumbfounded by some of the stuff that he does. But, like him or not, the method has worked and this evening, Phil Mickelson may well have cemented his place as the Arnold Palmer of this generation.