November 19, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.Phil Mickelson started and finished this year with some spectacular golf. He opened 2009 with victories on two of the Tour's best courses, Riviera and Doral, and then at the Masters shot a thrilling final round 67 that didn't quite earn him another green jacket but definitely stole the show. This fall Mickelson twice dusted Tiger Woods on Sunday to nab important trophies -- at the Tour Championship and then more recently at a glittery new World Golf Championship in Shanghai, where Phil dazzled new fans to the game with his good play and good humor.

In between those very personal triumphs he emerged as the team leader of the victorious American squad at the Presidents Cup. Three times Mickelson partnered with struggling teammates and led them to victories, and his leadership even impressed the likes of Michael Jordan, who served as a quasi assistant captain to the U.S. team. Asked what he would remember from the week, Jordan, sport's ultimate winner, said,"Phil Mickelson was able to take guys who had not really been successful on certain days and give confidence to help them rebound and get back to their game form. That, to me, symbolizes what a team is all about. " All of these accomplishments add up to one of the finest seasons of what will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

But Mickelson is my choice for Sportsman of the Year not because of the class he displayed in victory but the grace he exhibited during the darkest days of his professional life. A month after the Masters, Mickelson's wife (and college sweetheart) Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer. If the PGA Tour is like high school, then Amy has long been the head cheerleader, minus any pretensions. She is endlessly popular because of her warmth and sweetness and a down-to-earth quality that belies her beauty and the larger-than-life presence of her hubby. Strolling in Phil's gallery, Amy often rolls her eyes at her husband's risky play, just like everyone else.

Mickelson is an extremely dedicated family man who has been known to skip big-money tournaments in favor of trick-or-treating with his kids. After Amy's diagnosis there was talk he might take the rest of the year off. But Amy pushed him out the door, knowing the family needed some normalcy and that having Phil between the ropes would raise awareness about breast cancer while also providing solace to his many fans. Mickelson returned to action in early June. His first press conference was raw and wrenching, and the golf world cried along with him. The very next week, at the U.S. Open, he summoned the most inspirational performance of his career, battling to the final hole but ultimately coming up two strokes short. Mickelson's defeats are often as memorable as his triumphs, and this Open was no exception.

And then lightning struck again, in early July, when Mickelson's mother, Mary, was diagnosed with breast cancer, sending the family reeling once again.

After taking nearly two months off Phil returned to tournament golf, but he appeared dazed and distracted and his play suffered, as did his fans. Why did he continue to soldier on? It was very simple: he wanted to win a tournament for his wife, and his mom. And then he did it in the most audacious fashion imaginable, starting the final round of the Tour Championship two strokes back of Tiger and ending three in front. Mickelson's surge at the end of the year led NBC oracle Johnny Miller to declare him the best player in the world.

But golf is only part of what makes Phil Phil. He has long been one of sport's most generous philanthropists, funding a wide variety of charitable initiatives that include help for injured veterans and underprivileged school kids and a college to better prepare teachers in math and science. He also often engages in random acts of kindness, one of the more recent being spending $70,000 on a customized van to be used by a young boy he met in the gallery at the 2006 PGA Championship. As Mickelson's wife and mother continue to progress he has repeatedly talked about how inspiring their medical care has been. It's easy to believe that in the distant future Mickelson will be better known for his work in trying to find a cure for breast cancer than anything he's done in golf.

Only 39, Mickelson will win more tournaments, and more major championships. But 2009 will always be his finest year, when we got to see how big this champion's heart really is.

Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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