As Phil ``LIV and let LIV’’ Mickelson returns to the U.S. Open, I can’t get this thought out of my mind: Is it possible that Phil is now weirder than Tiger Woods?
Mickelson is a complicated guy. That is detailed in Phil, Alan Shipnuck’s outstanding new biography. He is an exceptional golfer who thinks and works tirelessly at getting better. A fan favorite for undeniably good reasons. A student of the game. But he is also incredibly self-absorbed, an obsessive personality with a boggling history of gambling woes.
Recently released, Phil started the avalanche of messiness. It contains Shipnuck’s interview with Mickelson—the one where he said the Saudis are gangsters, but so what?
And now, Phil's legacy, humanly blemished by his inability to win a U.S. Open, has a nasty new exclamation point: Golfer who took the money and ran to an unloved upstart—the Saudi-fueled LIV tour.
If you saw Mickelson’s U.S. Open press conference, which he did on Monday, it was strange, and bizarre, to see one of the two most important golfers of the last 30 years squirming like a congressmen who had been caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing.
I’ve been at a few Phil pressers, and they usually are a treat. At his best, Phil is image-conscious, engaged, funny, fun and thoughtful. He knows and appreciates the history of golf. And if he sometimes takes a curious and eccentric approach, he was always entertaining.
This was more like a third-degree questioning. . . of how he could justify in his mind going into business with people connected with the 9/11 tragedies, the killing of a Washington Post journalist and other unspeakable acts.
What a turn of events.
It wasn’t that long ago that Phil was a wildly popular and successful golf hero. If he hadn’t dominated golf the way his longtime Southern California rival, Tiger Woods, had, Phil had endeared himself to golf watchers.
Those who are old enough to remember will tell you that in the 1960s, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer took golf to soaring heights with their success and their personalities.
Arnie endeared himself with a gambling flair and a charismatic allure. Jack played with a relentless and icy resolve that gave him the game’s greatest legacy.
For years, we kept looking for the next Arnie-and-Jack. Remember Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf?
Long after that quest was abandoned, Tiger and Phil finally made that happen.
Phil had that Arnie-like appeal: An exciting boom-or-bust style and a winning personality.
Then came Tiger, who delivered his version of Nicklaus’ single-minded pursuit of excellence. In his prime, he was more dominant than anyone—even Jack. But he lacked the guy-next-door charm of Mickelson.
Then Tiger entered an Age of Darkness—a betrayal of his wife and fans followed by an endless string of injuries, followed by a what-the-hell-was-he-thinking car crash.
We could appreciate what Tiger had accomplished when he was on top. We could be curious about his travails. We could gawk at his comeback attempts. But there was too much coldness and sadness.
He had been the best. As Shipnuck noted in Phil, Nicklaus (greatest champion of all time) and Woods (most dominant golfer of all time) are 1a and 1b on his ranking of the all-time greatest golfers. I agree.
Phil is 11th on Shipnuck’s list, behind 3) Ben Hogan, 4) Bobby Jones, 5) Walter Hagen, 6) Sam Snead, 7) Gene Sarazen, 8) Gary Player, 9) Arnold Palmer and 10) Tom Watson.
I would probably move Palmer up to fifth, based on the Babe-Ruth-like way he popularized golf. But that’s more about criteria than accomplishment.
The strange part now, though, is Phil, who once had an Everyman appeal, has become an object of scorn. Phil, the guy who once had the gallery behind him the way Arnie did, now is a guy who unapologetically made a pact with oil-rich devils. He’s also a guy with an unsavory history of gambling.
Not that it matters, but I wonder if he aligned with the Saudis because he remains saddled with gambling debts. Probably not.
No matter. He once was known as a golf hero who had come up so dramatically short in U.S. Open after U.S. Open. A golf hero who hit an impossible shot from the pine straw at Augusta, who won an improbable British Open at Muirfield, who was a wizard at extricating himself from trouble with an amazing array of shots.
Now, I just wonder how it could happen that Phil, in his own way, has become a person who might be more strange than the apparently-repentant Tiger at this point. And if he’s not, the question is certainly open to debate.