The Irish love a rascal. And somebody should have told Phil Mickelson that last Friday night in Dublin. He was prowling the public rooms of the Berkeley Court Hotel after last week's Walker Cup competition, offering red-faced apologies for his youthful indiscretions when he should have been guzzling celebratory stout and chipping golf balls into the ballroom tureens.
After all, only golf historians will treasure the minutiae of the 33rd Walker Cup, held on the links of Portmarnock Golf Club. (In a nutshell, the amateur golfers of the U.S. regained the Cup—lost to the British and Irish at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta two years ago—by rallying late in Friday's closing singles matches. Final score: U.S., 14; Great Britain and Ireland, 10.) It was Mickelson, the cheeky, 21-year-old Californian with moussed hair, who most intrigued the thousands who trampled the grassy dunes along the Velvet Strand, because he is the best amateur golfer of recent years and because he proved he can swing smoothly even with his foot in his mouth.
The particulars of Mickelson v. Sweet Molly Malone: Asked by a TV reporter on Thursday to comment on a replay that showed him hitting out of the rough near the gallery during that morning's play, Mickelson chuckled and said, "That's not a place I want to be. The Irish women are not that attractive."
Mickelson awoke the next morning to these headlines in two Dublin papers: BAD BOY PHIL! and MASTERFUL MICKELSON DRAWS IRISH IRE. And there was trouble back home, where the Irish Consul in New York and ESPN, which broadcast Mickelson's words, both reported that they received a flurry of phone calls from angry Irish-Americans.
September 15, 1991
"I knew I was in for it the moment I said it," Mickelson said later. "It was a bad joke, and I feel just terrible about it."
Ironically, Irish television had featured Mickelson on the eve of the matches, and he had been effusive in his praise of everything Irish. That's probably why Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, made a point of greeting Mickelson warmly on Friday morning, and why USGA executive director David Fay strolled into the locker room singing, "I wish they all could be California giiiiiirls...."
Many of the host players, who were getting their first glimpse of Mickelson and his fascinating blend of arrogance and humility, found him, in a word, intimidating. In a Sept. 3 practice round, Mickelson, an Arizona State senior who has already won a PGA Tour event, showed off for spectators and the media on one hole by trying a one-iron punch shot from 100 yards—and sinking it for an eagle. On the first tee on Thursday, Mickelson, who was given the honor of striking the first ball of the competition, belted it and then nonchalantly tossed the driver to his caddie and turned away, not bothering to follow the ball's flight some 300 yards down the middle.
Whether Mickelson's cockiness helped the Americans sweep Thursday morning's four alternate-shot matches is arguable, but he and partner Bob May of La Habra, Calif., showed the way with an easy 5-and-3 victory over Garry Hay and Jim Milligan. Two matches, seemingly in the bag for the British and Irish, went to the U.S. on the final hole, the more dramatic being decided by a downhill 30-foot birdie putt by Mike Sposa, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee.
In the afternoon, in warm hazy sunshine and light breezes, the U.S. side won four of eight singles matches to take an 8-4 lead, meaning that only 4½ points were needed on the second day for victory. Mickelson, a 4-and-3 winner against former Scottish boys' champion Andrew Coltart, offended a few and amused the rest by responding playfully to Coltart's failure to concede a short putt on the 9th green. Smiling, Mickelson held his putter parallel to the ground to show that his ball was "within the leather"—a gimme—before tapping it in. The grim-faced Coltart, who would have to lighten up considerably to be called dour, blasted Mickelson after the round. "He's an arrogant so-and-so," Coltart said. "If his club had touched the ground, I would have claimed the hole."
Friday morning's clouds and a stiff sea breeze foretold a change of fortunes for the Americans. Mickelson stood behind his ball for some seconds, head bowed, before teeing off in the final foursomes match. "I was trying to get my mind back on golf," he admitted. Mickelson and May struggled for four hours and lost to Liam White and Paul McGinley on the 18th hole. "We thought they might boo us," said May, "but the galleries were wonderful." The British and Irish won two other matches, and the Americans led by only 9-7 at lunch.
The afternoon singles, played under blue skies in diminishing winds, started out as a rout of the Americans. At one point the only U.S. golfer leading a match was former University of Georgia star Franklin Langham, who jumped to a quick 4-up lead on Gary Evans. Gradually the matches swung back to the Americans. PGA Tour tournament director David Eger, 3 down to 19-year-old Padraig Harrington after six holes, went one up with a birdie on the 13th. May, driving erratically but scrambling like a genius, moved from one down to 4 up on Garth McGimpsey, one of two holdovers from the '89 Walker Cup team. And U.S. Amateur champ Mitch Voges of Simi Valley, Calif., looking like a Senior tour refugee with his creaky backswing and long putter, took command of Hay on the back side.
As usual, though, the drama followed Mickelson. Playing Scotland's Jim Milligan, the stoop-shouldered hero of the 1989 match at Peachtree, Mickelson took a one-hole lead with an eight-iron to three feet on the 470-yard 17th and then saved par and the match by getting up and down from a tight lie behind the 18th green. The locals, ringing the green by the thousands, were awed when he played a high lob with a wedge rather than a bump-and-run shot. The ball stopped two feet from the hole. Milligan, shaking his head afterward, said, "He's got all the shots."
It was Eger, in the end, who put the Yanks over the top; Harrington conceded the 16th hole—and the match—after a misadventure in a green-side bunker. But the Americans' four-point final margin was not so wide as it looks on paper, indicating a tight match when the biennial competition resumes in 1993 at Interlachen outside Minneapolis.
U.S. captain Jim Gabrielsen heaped praise on Mickelson for his leadership, and the Irish Independent ran a photo of a smiling Phil getting bussed by an Irish lass over a caption that read, "Forgiven...and a kiss to prove it." But both sides noted the contributions of the American team's older players: La Grange, Ga., driving-range owner Allen Doyle, 43, who was four under par in his 6-and-4 mangling of McGinley on Thursday; Voges, 42, who won two points out of a possible three; and, especially, Jay Sigel, 47, of Berwyn, Pa., whose eighth consecutive Walker Cup appearance equaled the record of Francis Ouimet. Sigel's two points in three matches at Portmarnock atoned for his jarring last-hole stumble to Milligan at Peachtree that decided the '89 Cup. Said Mickelson, "There's a lot of golf history in that man."
Even the women of Ireland might agree with Mickelson on that point.