Phil Mickelson's ability to win the claret jug while dealing with psoriatic arthritis made me appreciate his feat all the more
This is an article from the July 29, 2013 issue
Phil Mickelson and I aren't very much alike. His average drive (often with a three-wood) travels 290 yards. I hit it about 220, but usually not until the weather gets really humid and the ground really hard. He one-putts more times in a tournament than I probably do all summer. And last year he won $4.2 million on the PGA Tour, while I believe I was down a net $30 in my weekly foursome. But Phil and I do share one thing: We both have psoriatic arthritis, which is why I know his British Open win is more impressive than he'll ever say.
There are more than 100 kinds of musculoskeletal disorders that are classified as arthritis; the psoriatic variety is one of the more insidious. It comes without warning and causes all kinds of problems. Kind of like termites. In effect, the body is under siege from its own immune system, which is fighting a threat that doesn't exist. The result is systemic inflammation that attacks the skin and joints, causing damage in varying degrees.
Once the joints are damaged, the body is forced to compensate, creating other problems. In my case, I didn't realize I had arthritis in my right toes until I developed bursitis in my left hip. It was only while rehabbing the hip that a physical therapist noticed my gait was being affected by my sore and swollen toes. He recommended I see a rheumatologist, who immediately identified the problem. Within a few months the three outer toes on my left foot were so deformed that hammertoe doesn't even begin to describe them. That was 12 years ago. Since then, one of the new miracle drugs, Humira, has arrested the disease, as twice-monthly injections regulate my immune response. But the joint disfigurement is done and can't be reversed, and the collateral damage just gets worse. The inability to grip with my toes throws off my balance, and my right ankle feels as if it is permanently sprained. But I'm lucky. I can still play golf. For some people, psoriatic arthritis is crippling.
In Mickelson's case, he was preparing to play the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when his joints began to ache. His right ankle hurt, his right wrist felt as if it was sprained, and his left index finger was swollen. Not good for a player whose short-game feel is so critical to his success. Still, he finished fourth, three strokes behind Graeme McDowell. But just a week later his symptoms took a more extreme turn. "I was laying in bed and any movement was painful," he told USA Today in 2011. "I had to go lie on the couch because whenever [wife] Amy would move, it would hurt. A few days later I went out to play golf and the pain had extended to my shoulders, and I wasn't able to take the club back."
He sought immediate medical help, which is probably the best lesson Mickelson can teach anyone, golfer or not. A rheumatologist determined that psoriatic arthritis was the problem, and Mickelson began immediate treatment with Enbrel, another of the inflammation-suppressing drugs that stop the disease from doing more damage. He was back on Tour before the season ended.
While he declined to use the disease as an excuse, his game suffered. He got off to a hot start last year, including a win at Pebble Beach and a tie for third at the Masters, but as the season wore on, his game declined. In one two-month stretch he withdrew from the Memorial, citing fatigue; finished 65th at the U.S. Open; missed the cut at the Greenbrier and the British Open; then finished 43rd at the Bridgestone and 36th at the PGA. There were rumblings that the golf world was watching the end of a once great player. Mickelson denied it, saying, "I've been able to practice hard. I've been able to work out. I lost weight. I'm in better shape than I have been in a long time. [My health] hasn't been the issue."
With his near miss at Merion and now his back-to-back wins at the Scottish and British Opens, he was right. He knows his body better than anyone. It would be nice, though, if Phil shared a little more of his experience with a disease that affects an estimated 25 million people around the world. I feel a kinship with him that I'm sure most psoriatic arthritis sufferers do. And knowing what I do about playing golf with the affliction, I'm also more in awe of him now than ever before.
Greg Kelly, a 12 handicap, is a former senior editor at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.