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The Engaging, Addictive 'Phil' Fills the Void That Phil Mickelson Himself Created

Alan Shipnuck's book excerpts helped send the title subject into exile months ago. But the book itself delivers balanced and thoroughly sourced insights into a legend.
Cover of the book "Phil" by Alan Shipnuck

It would bemuse us both if I reminded Alan Shipnuck that we’ve known each other for more than a quarter-century, although time doesn’t so much fly nowadays as it tumbles slowly downhill. The young hotshot began showing up at PGA Tour events in the mid-1990s, armed with a degree from UCLA and the serendipitous self-assuredness of an underage cat burglar.

We bonded through mutual acquaintances and co-workers more than by karma, and though we’ve never been inseparable buds by any estimation, it wasn’t for a lack of close proximity between us.

Practice ranges. Putting greens. Locker rooms. Shipnuck’s job at Sports Illustrated was very similar to mine at Golf World: try to cover the Tour so effectively that people will read your story three days after the tournament ends. Both weekly magazines wielded large editorial budgets and collected journalists of national renown. Since we didn’t have to slog through the daily grind for a hometown newspaper, we had plenty of time to develop relationships with the players, earn their trust, and every once in a while, gather enough good stuff to convince the corporate gladiators that we were money well spent.

Those were fun times. A lot better than actually working, although Shipnuck rarely came up for air until long after the race had been run. He wrote books like a man who had never found a proper hobby, as if a 2,500-word game story from a major championship on a 7 a.m. deadline the following morning wasn’t enough to scare him into teaching eighth-grade English for a living.

"Bud, Sweat and Tees," Shipnuck’s 2003 debut as an author, was a smash hit, but 19 years later, that bawdy narrative reads like a comic strip compared to "Phil", the unauthorized biography of Phil Mickelson that hits the streets this week. Shipnuck began the project in earnest two summers ago. He approached his subject in person on three occasions before Mickelson finally vetoed the interview request, which did little to prevent the manuscript from flowering into a robust, comprehensive, bald-faced foray into the gigantic life of a man now living in an oversized kettle of hot water.

That rapid boil, of course, has been Mickelson’s own doing, but someone had to turn on the front burner, and Shipnuck never has been bashful about taking on such a task. The pre-release revelations contained in "Phil" regarding Lefty’s involvement with Golf Saudi and the formation of a competitive rival to the PGA Tour have emerged as the primary source in the unraveling legacy of the six-time major champion.

As they say, there’s more where that came from. Shipnuck’s nose for the truth takes the reader into some dark and disconcerting places. He provides frequent and fully anecdoted references to Mickelson’s gambling — the Tom Lehman and Gary McCord quotes in Chapter 9 are morsels of shameless humor and lecherous indiscretion. He also addresses the minefield of rumors loosely connected to Philly Mick’s personal life, unveiling stories that have circulated for more than two decades.

That’s another thing about Shipnuck. He has a big pair, especially for a golf writer. And they’re both made of brass.

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He also has an appropriate sense of what is journalistically fair, and this book doesn’t come close to crossing the line. In lieu of acting as judge and jury on one of the most successful and popular golfers of all-time, Shipnuck conducted almost 200 interviews in the compilation process, including dozens of tour pros. The strength and validity of "Phil" comes from the quantity of its voices, to an even greater extent than the author’s 28 years in the business.

The salacious stuff gets most of the attention, but the product in its entirety is engaging, addictive and impressive. Shipnuck’s expansive Ryder Cup passages feature perhaps the strongest content of any topic, not only loaded with background and on-the-record reflections, but anchored by a level of insight that isn’t easily culled from such a tightly sealed event.

From the questionable appointment of Tom Watson as 2014 U.S. skipper to the post-rout news conference, when Mickelson publicly castigated Watson’s methods in what assistant captain Andy North would call “the worst 30 minutes of my life,” Shipnuck takes you back into that media center with the clairvoyant value of 20/20 hindsight. In 2012, a steak dinner hosted by captain Davis Love III for bonding purposes well before the matches is remembered by those in attendance for one thing — the unforeseen warmth and boyish camaraderie between Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

Let’s just say Tiger gets a lot of ink in Shipnuck’s book. His relationship with Mickelson has long been speculated upon, overblown, underappreciated and appropriately left for dead over lengthy periods of time. "Phil" offers a trove of evidence to suggest that all those depictions are accurate. Kind of, anyway.

Mickelson’s decision not to cooperate with Shipnuck might not have affected the depth of the project as much as the lack of input from Jim Mackay, Lefty’s caddie for 25 years until they parted ways in 2017. Despite Mackay’s absence, there is some heavy behind-the-scenes detail to be found in the latter pages, along with Mickelson’s questionable dealings in his financial investments and some interesting stuff about his three kids.

Given all his current troubles — including an extremely uncertain future — potentially serious money issues and an unenviable history of drawing attention to himself for many of the wrong reasons, it’s worth remembering that Phil Mickelson is a husband and a father. And a champion for the ages. And a dude who remains prone to inexcusable bouts of knuckleheadedness on a regular basis. A human being. Flawed and idolized, despised and lionized. Shipnuck does a terrific job of shaping these complexities into a compelling, 249-page read that has already become central to the biggest golf story in 2022.

Yes, there are six months left, but like the very first line of the book, it will be hard to top.

“Just throw the first punch,” Mickelson says.

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