By Brendan Porath
Hours after flying back and forth from Pittsburgh to San Diego in a one-day jaunt on his private jet, Phil Mickelson sat up on the dais of his U.S. Open press conference in four-figure trousers and alligator shoes fielding questions about his "everyman" image. This was a press conference that pivoted from a daughter's eighth-grade graduation to an insider trading scandal in a matter of seconds.
Phil turns 46 years old today and now carries around 25 years of baggage with him, full of complexities, contradictions, successes, failures, and a record six U.S. Open runners-up. All of that somehow washes out in near universal love or admiration.
"Kind of a peaceful evening, isn't it?" Mickelson asked just a few hours after those questions, walking alone as the last man on a golf course with the sun fading one last time before the start of the 116th U.S. Open. It was here, in those gators and Tom Fords, that you might be able to find the kernel of some sort of "everyman." He engaged almost every fan in what remained of the late crowd and seemed to be having fun doing it on a peaceful evening spent grinding away just hours before the toughest test in golf started. It's unusual to see a player, especially of this profile, out on the course past lunch on the eve of a major championship. Mickelson, however, ate up almost every bit of sunlight before the start of an event that's become the white whale of his career.
The lefty spent an hour on two greens alone, practicing lag putt after lag putt as people waited ahead. Just when you thought he was done, he would put some more markers down and go back to another round of the drill. It was nearing closing time and the maintenance staff was, you know, trying to complete their overnight preparations and probably hadn't anticipated the biggest earner in golf being out there with them. "You want to wait until they're done and then just come back out?" One asked his colleague, who sighed, hung his head, and replied yes.
phil The maintenance crew that could work alongside Phil zipped back and forth on those rolling machines across the green, dodging him. They came and went. The crews watering the greens, spraying every area except Phil's little practice halo, came and went. Marshals came and went, leaving some rope lines unattended because, hell, the U.S. Open was starting in 12 hours. Fans, trying to wait him out to see a tee shot on the next hole, came and went. Ted Scott, Bubba Watson's caddie doing one last walk down the middle of every hole double checking his notes, came and went. Phil just kept lagging putts over and over like he'd completely lost track of time and might just stay there until it got dark.
By my count, he spent 63 minutes on the 15th and 16th green alone. Just the greens. After he finished his drill on the 15th, he started the walk to the next tee where the crowd had been patiently waiting for a half-hour to see him hit a shot into the par-3 16th. The problem was the next green was covered with about 15 maintenance crew members making their overnight preparations to the putting surface. Phil stopped in his tracks, realized he probably shouldn't play through, and then kicked in that "everyman" stuff and started talking to the fans who had been waiting on the tee for so long.
"I'd hit one for you guys but I don't want to hit them (the groundskeepers) We just have to walk over there ... sorry, guys," Phil apologized. "They're doing too good a job down there."
The dude apologized to the fans for not hitting a shot for them, thanked the volunteers for their help this week, and praised the maintenance crew's efforts up ahead all in one movement. He would then walk up to the green, stand around, and wait for the crews to finish up before starting another lag drill. It's not a high bar, at all, but by not being some self-serious golf robot, this is how you end up getting labeled a "man of the people" while wearing gators and making $50-plus million a year.
Mickelson went on to engage every call and cheer as he walked the remaining two holes. It was hard to avoid and became more conversational in a thinned-out crowd this late in the day. The fans who were left clapped for his dang lag putts. These putts were not to a hole, but just spots on the green where he thought there might be one in the coming days.
The shouts were mostly about how that fan had him "No. 1 on his fantasy team" or that "this was your year." Most got the trademark thumbs-up and a thank you. A group of probably overserved fans had a lengthy shouting exchange with him about hitting driver on the shorter, uphill 17th. "One driver, Phil, c'mon! We got a bet!" they shouted. Phil loves a bet, but gambling has gotten him into into trouble, both on and off the course. "Not a chance," he said. The goading from fans was not going to change the firm line he previously took when he said there was "zero percent" he'd try to drive the 17th green this week.
They repeatedly peppered Phil with autograph requests, and he responded, "I'll sign in a couple more holes after the round because I want to make sure I get in before it's dark." The "after the round" line is a common deflection technique for these pros, only this time, the crowd was sparse enough that they were probably all going to actually get one as Mickelson walked off the 18th (where he did sign as the sun went down and a storm rolled in).
Whether this is all some bullshit PR act or Phil is genuinely happy to interact with every member of the great unwashed around him, it was effortless much in the same way he navigated his press conference a few hours earlier. Phil is now 46, an age, history tells us, when you're not really supposed to win majors anymore. You would assume, despite his lukewarm review of the course, that he still liked his chances this week as he labored over lag putts late into a "peaceful evening" just hours before the first round.
He may eject just nine holes into the tournament and be gone by lunchtime on Friday. He may get a seventh runner-up result on Sunday. Or he may complete the career slam. Whatever the result, fans falling further in love will be the constant. And that outfit worth more than many of their cars.