Are We Facing Phil’s Final Act?

It’s the capricious nature of sport that for all of Phil Mickelson’s high achievements his career is still largely defined by the one championship that got away a half-dozen times.

The U.S. Open was the first major tournament Mickelson ever contested, finishing low amateur at Medinah 30 years ago. He has made 28 starts in all and the results read like an EKG, spiking with each of those six runner-up finishes, five of which would meet anyone’s threshold for heartbreak. So the possibility that his Open career might flatline with last year’s mundane T-52 at Pebble Beach seems a cruel jest.

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That’s a prospect Mickelson himself tabled when he emphatically rejected the idea of
accepting a special exemption from the USGA to compete at Winged Foot in June. “I won’t accept it,” he said last week. “I am either going to get in the field on my own, or I’ll have to try to qualify. I’m not going to take a special exemption.”

Mickelson improved his world rank to No. 72 thanks to a tie for third while sportswashing for the sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and will rise higher on the strength of his solid play in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He needs to be in the top 60 later this summer to qualify for the Open. “I think I’ll get in the tournament,” he insisted. “If I get in, I deserve to be there. If I don’t, I don’t. I don’t want a sympathy spot.”

His airy dismissal of special exemptions as charity for old champions is misplaced. Sure, Arnold Palmer received five free passes and Jack Nicklaus eight when both were far past their primes, but Open exemptions aren’t only reserved for players who can no longer hang. Lee Trevino got one at Winged Foot in 1984, and he was still good enough to win the PGA Championship later that summer. Hale Irwin took an exemption into that first U.S. Open Mickelson played in ’90 and became the oldest-ever winner at age 45.

Perhaps Mickelson is overly sensitive to the idea that special exemptions are acts of sympathy because he turns 50 years old during championship week at Winged Foot, a rubicon that usually separates competitive golfers from ceremonial ones. He was equally dismissive of competing in the U.S. Senior Open, which comes one week after Winged Foot (and for which he will be eligible).

It’s clear that Mickelson does not intend to fade quietly into his golden years. He has lost weight but none of his competitive fire. But it’s also apparent that he has an eye on his next act, and that act won’t involve imitating past greats by plying his trade on the senior circuit while doffing his ceremonial cap as he exits major championships on Friday afternoons.

Phil Inc. has a much longer runway than Phil the player. Mickelson understands that his power is no longer dependent on his performances against kids on the PGA Tour but is best exploited in controlled environments where established celebrity has currency.

That explains his late conversion to social media, where he has diligently built an image of a self-deprecating jock that showcases for a new audience his enviable skill as a corporate pitchman. His viral calves, Stars & Stripes onesie and Phireside chats have all been in service of that image. So too his bravado about hitting bombs, despite a driving distance rank of 40th that suggests his bombs are more like hand grenades compared to his younger rivals.

It also provides context to his enthusiasm for that 2018 match against Tiger Woods in Las Vegas and his coquettish public comments about a rumored splinter tour, Premier Golf League, which won’t fly unless stars like Mickelson lend it their imprimatur. “I’m not ready to talk about it publicly,” he said, almost believably, after partnering with PGL’s backers in the Saudi pro-am. “I’m still taking it in, but I learned a lot.”

While he seems to spend more time these days whiteboarding that next act, Mickelson’s play indicates there is plenty left in his tank. Only a fool would bet against him qualifying for Winged Foot on his own merits. He is, after all, a proud man, with much to be proud of. But he’s also a gambling man and must know the odds of his completing a fairytale career grand slam at the U.S. Open are desperately slim. They’ve staged 119 of these things and the number won by a 50-year-old is zero.

If Mickelson doesn’t make the 120th U.S. Open, his absence will be acutely felt at a tournament with which he has become synonymous, and will draw a line under a thrilling run. His absence from the following week’s Senior Open, of which we can be more certain, will owe not to a belief that he can’t win, but the knowledge that even a victory there does nothing to burnish his legacy. We don’t know exactly where the Phil Mickelson story is headed next, but it’s not going there. All we can be sure of is that he will take most every golf fan out there along for the ride., February 9, 2020.

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