Phil Now More Major Sideshow Than Major Contender

It’s been exactly two years and two days since Phil Mickelson was relevant in a tournament that matters.

That was his outstanding duel with Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon in the 145th British Open. He missed the cut in the 146th edition, and the 147th isn’t looking very promising either after a first round of 2-over-par 73.

That’s not to say Mickelson hasn’t made news in those two years, during which he accumulated zero top-20 finishes in six majors played. He ended a five-year winless drought at the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, but for the most part his headlines haven’t been so much earned with fine play as extorted with sideshow stunts.

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The five-time major winner is indisputably the greatest showman in the game, innately conscious of delivering exactly what his fans want to see. Some of the next generation of PGA Tour stars would do well to learn from him in that regard. But as his game erodes, Mickelson now gathers headlines much as a squirrel does acorns—as a way of keeping himself sated during the infertile winter of his career.

Consider the frequency with which he creates a spectacle without contending for a trophy.

Last year he strung out a “will he-won’t he” routine in the lead-up to the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, the first round of which clashed with his daughter’s high school graduation. After several days of playing Hamlet, he skipped the tournament.

At the Masters in April, he showed up for a practice round with Tiger Woods in a dress shirt. Having generated the predictable media coverage, he duly took a stake in the manufacturer, Mizzen + Main. He wore it again for the first two rounds of the Players Championship, dressing and playing like a middle manager as he shot 79-73 to miss the cut.

Last month he brought his circus act to the big tent at the U.S. Open, hitting a moving ball during the third round at Shinnecock Hills and following it with an interview that displayed more contempt than contrition. He waited four days before apologizing, ensuring a fresh round of coverage.

It was a Mea Culpa, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

Two weeks ago Mickelson fractured another rule by patting down fescue grass in front of the tee at the Greenbrier stop, by then testing the cliché that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Finally, last week he confirmed plans for a $10 million winner-take-all exhibition match against Woods, a manufactured bout between two aging prize-fighters who never actually traded blows for a title belt in their primes.

Easy to appreciate why his actual golf game might be rusty at Carnoustie. Keeping Phil Inc. in the news is a full-time job.

“The course played the way I thought it would,” Mickelson said Thursday. “It’s a very fun, fair and hard test. It’s good. Really good.”

It was really good, but the 2013 Open champion was not, despite a valiant effort to put a positive spin on things.

“I just doubled 16. I hit a bad shot and doubled. Otherwise, I played pretty well,” he said.

Pretty well, except for his 34 putts. Mickelson was visibly frustrated after the round as he worked on the practice putting green with his coach, Andrew Getson.

His 73 was free of sideshows—the dress shirt he wore having exhausted its novelty value—but leaves him perilously close to missing the cut for the third time in his last five majors. The revenue for Phil Inc. after a missed cut is a nominal fee, as little as $5,000, or about what his jet would burn taxiing on the runway for his flight home.

Mickelson turned 48 during the U.S. Open. Just one major championship among the 446 contested in the sport’s history has been won by someone older. With the sand running low in his competitive hourglass, it’s entirely understandable that Mickelson should seek other ways to leverage his brand, as the marketers say.

It’s been 732 days since Phil last provided thrills on Sunday in a major. It will probably take a low score on Friday to even see the weekend at Carnoustie, much less challenge. His many fans would love nothing more than to see him atop the iconic yellow Open leaderboard, if only for a break from all the publicity.

Golfweek, July 19, 2018.

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