Lefty Hits the Right Note

June 21, 2009

Which one is the everyman?

John Daly showed off a silhouette slimmed by the miracle of lap-band surgery—he boasts, "you don't have to go work out in the gym"—as he stood on the driving range in Argyle pants cut from Austin Powers's curtains last week at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis. If Daly had taken a good poke well left of the 300-yard marker, he could have hit the patio of the sprawling home where his estranged wife, Sherrie, lives. Not that wife No. 4 would have been there: To avert a potential scene, Daly got a restraining order, forcing Sherrie to vacate the premises during the tournament at TPC Southwind. And there is always the potential for a scene with Daly—screwin' up between strokes of virtuosity for nearly 20 years, since he first caught fans' fancy with his grip-it-and-rip-it style.

Phil Mickelson was fairly fit and trim by virtue of diet discipline as he stood in conservative gray slacks beneath a shade tree talking after a humid third round. He had Amy on his mind even when the question wasn't about his wife of 13 years. The subject was himself, and what it was like to have his adult life play out in front of cameras and crowds. "I don't know any different," he said. "I think my wife is much more private and isn't quite as comfortable having everything be public as we go through this challenge."

Mickelson always says we and our when detailing the breast cancer treatments Amy will undergo beginning July 1. They are in this journey of hope and fear together, hands held tight. Even when the conversation began with his fan base, he turned it back to his wife. He recalled the first week after the diagnosis, when he and Amy were at home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., watching the "Pink-Out" at Colonial in late May. Everyone from fans to players to caddies put on pink ribbons, hats and bibs in support of Amy and Phil. "It was so cool and humbling," Mickelson said with a catch in his voice, "just to feel you're not alone." For nearly 20 years Lefty has gradually won over the galleries, through the birth of each of his three children and the Sunday showdowns with Tiger, from being Mr. Almost at the majors to his breakthrough victory at the 2004 Masters.

You get what you put into Mickelson: a return on your emotional investment. It is rare to find fulfillment in the adoration of athletes when messy endings (Favre) or steroid links (Manny) or bong pics (Phelps) or sportsmanship gaffes (LeBron) complicate the worship. Just because he hasn't had a major lapse in judgment or a mug-shot moment doesn't make Mickelson perfect—his fondness for taking risks on the course is well-known. But he has shown a consistency of character whether he shoots a 67 or a 76, with a pleasant persona that engenders a vicarious identification from fans who say, "Yep, that's how I'd act if I were playing golf for a living. Happy to be there." Some PGA Tour players will whisper that Mickelson is a phony as they pat Daly on the back for being a down-to-earth good ol' boy.

But which one is more like us? Mickelson or Daly? Yes, the 43-year-old Daly puts his pants on one leg at a time, but they're clown pants. Like Elvis, another pop icon of human indulgence in Memphis, Daly has turned into a rhinestone lounge act. One too many rehab stints, Vegas runs and domestic spats. He didn't return to the Tour in Memphis as a man of the people after his six-month suspension for bad behavior—smashing a tee shot off a beer can at a pro-am, being jailed overnight for public intoxication outside a Hooters—but as a player fewer people can relate to. There were signs of Daly fatigue at the St. Jude Classic even as the galleries thickened around him. "The perpetual sideshow," mentioned one spectator to another.

In truth, Memphis was more like Mickelson's Graceland, an almost spiritual place where folks lined up to feel an emotional connection to greatness—except they could actually touch Mickelson, 39, who was returning to tournament play after a six-week break to be with Amy. For 29 minutes after his round last Saturday, with sweat zigzagging down his face, he autographed anything with a flat surface: pictures, programs and what appeared to be a pink pot holder. "We're praying for you, Phil," said one man. "Give Amy our love," said another.

The back-and-forth was familiar and comfortable, as if these strangers were also ready to go through our treatment with the Mickelsons, as if they'd intimately known Phil and Amy for years. What separates golf from many sports is the long arc of the players' careers. Where were you when Lefty carried a beeper at the U.S. Open in 1999, ready to bolt if Amy went into labor with their first child?

At the U.S. Open this week at Bethpage, people will think, Has it really been 10 years since then? The extended public stay that golfers have in our lives gives us a chance to learn more than we want (Daly) or build an ever-deepening connection (Mickelson). Fans like to scream, "You da man!" when a Tour player tees off. To the Phil-o-philes, the cry is more like, "You our man!"

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You get what you put into Phil Mickelson: a return on your emotional investment. He has shown a consistency of character whether he shoots a 67 or a 76.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KAGAN MCLEOD

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)