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Phil Mickelson: Golf's New Grand Old Man — No, Seriously

True story: PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson is old enough for the Seniors Tour. Not that he's going to play anytime soon; the major exemptions he earned with his PGA victory means that the Champions Tour will have to make do with Ernie Els as their marquee player for a few more years.
player about to hit a golf ball

This is my attempt to bookend Father's Day + the U.S. Open with a few articles on golf...so if you only do energy, see me next week. Otherwise, read away.

Chasing the Tiger

If Phil Mickelson had been born a few years earlier than 1970 or a few years later, he would probably rank up there with Nicklaus, Woods, and Palmer at the pinnacle of golf. As it happens, Phil Mickelson (everybody calls him Phil) is five years older than Tiger Woods. He has played in his shadow since the early 1990s. Lord knows Tiger has won a ton more tournaments than Phil. But the question remains: what would Phil's legacy be without Tiger looming over his career? 

It's possible we got an idea a couple of weeks ago at the PGA Championship at the Ocean Course at Kiawah. A fit and fabulous fifty — and a couple of weeks away from 51 — Phil dominated the tournament like he was half his age. He rolled right over the rest of the field with a rock-solid six under par. Runner-up Brooks Koepka is literally young enough to be Phil's son (31); third-place finisher Louis Oosthuizen (and runner up at the U.S. Open) is a distant 38.

It does make you wonder if Phil would have been more settled in his game if he weren't forever chasing a literal Tiger. Would he have fiddled around with clubs and strategies so that he psyched himself out of six Open titles? We'll never know. But he doesn't show any signs of changing his ways. It sure seems to be working for him. 

Phil Mickelson Is in the Best Shape of His Life

One thing that struck me when I was watching the tournament on T.V. (however, I did primarily listen to it on SiriusXM) was that it couldn't possibly be soft in the middle, kind of paunchy Phil striding down the fairway looking lean and mean in his trademark black shirt. But nope, there he was — short of hair, tight of middle, tan, and toothy of grin. He was not even the Phil I'd seen just a month earlier at Augusta, where he tied for 21st (so admittedly, I didn't see a lot of him). 

But you don't go from the poster-pro of dad bods to an athlete in his prime without people noticing. So Phil has had to explain his new diet regimen to the world. 

So, What Is It?

Frankly, and not to be weird here, I'm fascinated by the new and improved Phil Mickelson. Obviously, even paunchy Phil with the modified mullet was an elite athlete. But his commitment to a healthier diet (no more diet Cokes and candy bars) has resulted in a trimmed-down physique. It dominated the PGA Championship conversation as much as his golf. 

He's also taken up fasting, which has really caught this middle-aged duffer's attention. My wife taught me to fast and it is actually spiritually, mentally, and physically awesome. Anyway, he says he fasts for up to three days every few months and does shorter fasts more often. Part of his regimen is a 36-hour fast after his final round. He says it helps him rest and reset his immune system. Does anybody else remember Novak Djokovic saying he binged on cheeseburgers after he finished a tournament? 

Phil Mickelson received a diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis and psoriasis in 2010. Then he began a vegetarian diet. Remember the commercials he did for medication? But apparently, nobody on his team connected the dots between diet and inflammation until recently, when he changed his diet and eliminated inflammation-causing foods. He complained of low energy and losing focus even after the diet change but says now that he has figured out how to keep his focus during tournaments. 

Focus on Focus

I have a hard time focusing on my game when it's just a couple of buddies and me. I check my phone between shots and sometimes take calls, but even if I didn't I can't imagine trying to stay focused on my job with thousands of screaming fans (I do have them), T.V. cameras, and god-knows-what distracting me. So when Phil said he missed the Valspar cut a couple of weeks before the PGA because he physically couldn't get his focus back, I totally got it. He has been working to improve that clarity of thought and better visualize the shot by playing at least two rounds every day when he's not at a tournament. He has found that this routine helps him stay focused during the hubbub of a tournament. 

So Phil's become pretty zen in his old age — until he steps onto the tee box. 

To this end, he doesn't check his cell phone much during tournaments. He was one of the leading players to let the PGA know it was a bad idea to allow them on the course in 2012. During the PGA Championship, his mom had some thoughts on how he should finish the final round. So she texted her daughter Tina, who texted her other son Tim, who happens to be Phil's caddy. Don't bomb your drives, she said. Don't activate the calves, she said. Just par it in and make them chase you, was her motherly advice — delivered through two other kids because she thought Phil wouldn't take advice from his mom. 

Phil and the Younger Generation

How did you spend your COVID-19 quarantine? Phil spent his time playing some fun rounds with the young Turks of the game. Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler joined him at Michael Jordan's The Grove XXXII (get it?) course in Florida — no worries, these guys don't fly commercial. He also played with Charley Hoffman and Xander Schauffele back home in San Diego. 

Schauffele has been a pretty constant sparring partner for Phil Mickelson. Phil freely admits he learned from Schauffelle as he methodically beat him — shooting 63s, 64s, the random 62 — during what counted for a pro golfer's lockdown. He says that Schauffele plays with a calm that he admires, that he:

“...didn't try to overpower every hole but overpowered the holes he should and keep the ball in play and keep the ball on the ground and hit his iron shots pin-high and being solid from inside 15 feet. I saw what it looked like to play at the highest level.”

For somebody who's been at the highest level for quite a while now, this comment got me thinking. All those risks Phil Mickelson took in the past... Does he regret that seat-of-the-pants style of play that made him famous for his eternal bridesmaid status at the Open? 

The 2002 Interview

In 2002, he gave the golf media one of the best interviews ever, one they're still talking about. Many of golf's eminences (mostly the media) accused him of not taking the game seriously enough. They accused him of squandering his chances at a major with a go-to-hell game plan and a total lack of patience. 

“I won't ever change my style of play, I get criticized for it, but the fact is that I play my best when I play aggressive, when I attack, when I create shots. I have had a number of chances to win majors, and I wouldn't have had those chances had I played any other way. Now, I may never win a major playing that way, I don't know, I believe that if I'm patient I will. But the fact is, that if I change the way I play golf, one, I won't enjoy the game as much and, two, I won't play to the level I have been playing. I won't ever change. Not tomorrow, Sunday or at Augusta, or the U.S. Open, or any tournament.”

For the most part, that attitude has served him well. Three Masters, three PGAs, and one British Open (if you look it up, it says the Open, which is not to be confused with that elusive U.S. Open) later, Mickelson is pretty confident in his approach to the game. Unlike the hot new players on the tour who track and monitor and measure every possible detail, Phil just gets out there and gets it done. I bet he has a lot more fun playing what's still a game than the ball bean counters out there. 

Winged Foot — A Saga of the Hospitality Tent and Elm Trees

phil mickelson
Phil Mickelson's performance in 2006 was a stark contrast to his recent win.

"I am such an idiot."

No pro athlete ever has melted down as completely as Phil Mickelson at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. I can't do what happened justice. But the NBC commentary by Roger Maltbie and Johnny Miller is the stuff Jim Nantz dreams about. Suffice to say that when Phil teed off on 18, ahead by two, he used a driver for the narrow, short hole. Miller was aghast that he didn't use a 4-wood.

 That tragic tee shot hit a hospitality tent and landed over where the galleries had just departed. The second shot was worse. He hit a stand of elm trees, and the ball ricocheted back to about 25 yards from where it departed. The third shot, for all the risky glory? Into the greenside bunker. Next shot? Over the green and into the rough. If it had been me, the next shot would have been a double vodka. 

Phil's always been great with the media, probably because he just has so much damn fun out there. For Phil, what's the difference between a great shot and a smart shot? "A great shot is when you pull it off," he said. "A smart shot is when you don't have the guts to try it." 

Phil has always had the guts to try the smart shots and turn them into great shots. 

Speed Driving

One of the new tricks in Phil's bag is his custom Callaway Epic Speed driver. Phil's a player who doesn't have to sacrifice distance for accuracy, so this club gives him both. The 47.9" shaft comes mighty close to the PGA limit of 48". But this extra-long club sure seems to work for him. Callaway says that the five degrees of loft help him launch the ball way up there. Then the ball spins low and slow — a Phil trademark.

We'll never know if it was mother Mary's advice, caddy/brother Tim's coaching, or Phil just being Phil. But he managed to overtake Julius Boros's long-standing record of being the oldest player to win a major the other week. And I have no idea what activating the calves means, so don't ask.