Appreciating Phil Mickelson
That was how Phil Mickelson answered a question on Friday at Torrey Pines about whether his third shot on the 18th hole was the first time he had ever played from the parking lot. We’ve seen Phil play from cart paths and hospitality tents. He’s tried to pull off the backwards shot in live competition. He’s withheld information from his caddie just because he wanted to, and he’s pulled off one of the most ridiculous shots in major history that most players never even would have thought of attempting. There’s more that I’m leaving out for the sake of brevity, but I’m sure you get the point. Asking any other player about whether they’ve ever played from the parking lot would likely result in the standard, “Nope, first time” response, but Phil? He’s always been an entertainer, and this was just another day at the office.
I was thinking about this when I was watching Golf Twitter erupt on Friday afternoon, and when I watched the replay later on and what it all means. I’m not talking about how Phil ended up making a seven, which eventually led him to missing the cut. Phil’s missed plenty of cuts in his career, roughly 17% of his starts, and one more in the pile isn’t going to resonate in any real way. No one’s going to remember the fact that he missed this cut at Torrey, but the way he went about doing it, which is the same way he’s gone about winning fifty one times as a professional, is what makes him so unique. Unfortunately though, at 45 years old and nearly three years removed from his most recent win, it’s really difficult to envision a scenario in which we’ll be able to watch him do it for much longer.
For his entire career, there have always been better players. It started with Greg Norman in the early to mid-90s, transitioned to Tiger in the late 90’s and now he’s dealing with players like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. It’s still crazy to me that because of this, we never got to see Phil reach the number one spot in the Official World Golf Rankings and barring some kind of crazy miracle, it’s something that’ll never happen. But that’s also been part of his allure too. It’s weird to think of someone with fifty one wins and five majors as a bit of an underachiever, but the near misses and the volcanic like way that those misses have occurred have made him so much more interesting and entertaining. He’s the matador that keeps getting up even after being gored by the bull.
Watching sports stars at the end of their careers obviously isn’t some new phenomenon, but the last few months have been especially noteworthy in this regard. Derek Jeter’s gone. Peyton Manning can’t make routine throws. Kobe Bryant looks awful in Los Angeles. Martin Brodeur played games for the Blues last year before calling it quits. Roger Federer is still great, but it’s obviously not the same and hasn’t been for some time. I don’t need to tell you about Tiger. The whole “Father Time is undefeated” thing is a cliche, but the reality is that it’s true. These guys don’t last forever, and even though golfers tend to age better than most athletes and can provide amazing moments into their fifties, they are still few and far between, which is what we’re seeing right now with Phil.
It’s impossible to know how much Phil has left to offer against the best players in the world. He’ll tell you that he’s hitting the ball great and that his new swing is going to help him contend on a more regular basis. But at his age, he’s fighting an uphill battle and when you combine that with the style he plays, it’s easy to see him fading away at any point. Come July, we’ll be three years removed from his last win at the Open Championship. It would be one thing if any of the aforementioned close calls and heartbreaks had happened recently, but aside from a finish in the dark at Valhalla in 2014, the results just haven’t been there. The magic has started to leave his hands.
He played well at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and has shown enough flashes to where we can’t even come close to writing the eulogy for his career. In a world where the game’s young stars can sound and seem like corporate robots, Phil remains a swashbuckling buccaneer that will, at all costs, do things his way. We don’t know how many more unnecessary flop shots, face awareness comments, aggressive colours, cash game stories, waving to boats, sliding down hills and Bones pin-tending missions there are left. So, enjoy it while you can.
Has Phil Mickelson ever played from a parking lot? Probably, but will we ever see anyone like him again?