Feud, what feud? Phil Mickelson opens up to Mark Cannizzaro on his relationship with Tiger Woods and his emergence from the fringe of success to golf?s latest superstar.
Phil Mickelson sits comfortably on an oversized leather chair inside the exclusive Quail Hollow Club locker room lounge during the week of the PGA Tour?s Wachovia Championship in May. He?s discussing the current state of his life and in fact looks even more comfortable in his own skin than he is in that big chair. He has plenty of reasons to be cheerful. He?s married to his college sweetheart, Amy ? a bubbly, pretty, blonde former cheerleader whose ebullient personality makes her everyone?s friend. He?s got three healthy children ? two daughters and a son. Going into June?s US Open Championship at Winged Foot, he?s won three of the last nine Majors, including the last two ? the Masters in April and the USPGA last August. He?s ranked number two in the world. He?s a millionaire 20 times over. Suffice it to say Mickelson is in the prime of an amazing life ? but he wants more.
?I don?t have that many years left in my career,? says the 35-year-old. ?I don?t know what it is. It could be two, it could be 10 or it could be 20. I don?t know. But I figure
I only have maybe 20 to 40 really great Major opportunities, and I want to try to win as many of those as I can. I don?t want to have my career end and have any regrets. I want to give it my all.?
Mickelson has, over the past few years, found a way to give it his all and contend in virtually every Major tournament. Whether a light bulb went off in his head one evening or whether one of his confidantes reached him, his method of preparation has become much more refined.
Swing coach Rick Smith and short game coach Dave Pelz are helping Mickelson prepare for each Major by visiting the site beforehand and spending hours there analysing his way around the course.
Mickelson said, before he made his breakthrough and won his first Major ? the 2004 Masters ? that he, Pelz, Smith and his caddie, Jim ?Bones? MacKay, wanted to find ways to shave a quarter to a half a shot off each round. Mickelson realised he was falling short
of Tiger Woods by a shot or two in the Masters and US Open. So, he logically thought ? take two strokes off a four-round score and win Majors. And it?s worked.
?Pelz and I committed to a seven-year plan back in ?04,? reveals Mickelson.
?So, through my age of 40 I?m going to prepare and work hard and do drills he?s come up with, practising the right way to get my best game out in these Majors. That?s why we?re going to the site so early and scouting them, because I want to give it my best chance for the next five to 10 years.
?I don?t know how many I?ll be able to win,? he continues. ?I don?t know if I?ve already won my last. But I want to try to keep winning more and hopefully give myself more and more chances.?
Mickelson?s other goal, of course, is to usurp Tiger as world number one. The
left-hander?s challenge to Woods? reign is a delicious current version of Arnold Palmer versus Jack Nicklaus back in the 1970s.
?We have a great time together and the more time I spend around him [Tiger]?the more I like and respect him.”
Mickelson, as competitive as he is, is careful not to lay down any gauntlets.
He was quick to joke after winning the Masters in April that, ?This is Tiger?s world; I just live in it.?
?It will always be 10 to three right now,? he said, referring to Major titles. ?I hope that I?m able to continue to play well in the Majors and continue to have opportunities to go head-to-head with him.?
And contrary to some reports, Mickelson says he gets on well with the undisputed number one. ?I?ll tell you, it is really fun for me to play with him on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cups,? he says. ?We have a great time together and the more time I spend around him the more I like and respect him. Also, that makes the times we go head-to-head much more meaningful, too.?
When asked if he?s overtaken Woods as the player to beat, Mickelson squirms in is seat, saying, ?Well, I would never say that. The 10-year career that Tiger has had deserves the respect of all players, and he is the number one player in the world, I would never question that. But I?ve had a lot of fun in the last couple of Majors, being able to win those, being able to compete in some prior tournaments and compete head-to-head against guys like Tiger.?
A Mickelson gesture moments after he captured his second Masters in April showed the kind of respect he has for Woods as a person. While addressing the masses outside the Augusta National clubhouse with a victory speech, Mickelson asked the crowd to take a moment and pray for Woods? ailing father, Earl, who would end up succumbing to cancer in May.
?It?s our job as his friends to be there as his support system, wish him well and do what we can,? Mickelson says of his gesture. ?I guess I was looking at Tiger and thinking about what he was going through. He?s a great guy and very respectful. He?s always treated every player with so much respect and we all feel for the situation he?s going through, because we want him out on tour. We want him out playing and competing.?
Woods was clearly moved by his rival?s kind words, patting Mickelson on the leg when he sat back down next to him.
Mickelson says his second Masters win feels very different from his first. The 2004 victory was clearly a revelation ? with it came immediate thoughts of relief since he had endured so many questions and references about being ?the best player never to have won a Major?.
You could see the emotion all over his face when he finally broke through and you could hear it in his voice as he did the
late-night talk-show circuit, Mickelson conceding that he and Amy had taken turns sleeping in the fabled Green Jacket that goes with a Masters victory.
This time around Mickelson didn?t need
a birdie for victory (he was able to take a relaxed bogey) and his celebration was much more subdued. And he didn?t appear on a single late-night programme this year.
?The first year I didn?t take it off for a week,? says Mickelson of the Jacket. ?As fun as it was to win [in 2006], I want to get ready for [the US Open at] Winged Foot, man. I want to get ready for that tournament and the upcoming Majors.
I?ll dwell on this win after the season.?
While his status as a player has changed beyond recognition, Mickelson?s off-course life is also significantly different. The year after his first Masters victory he endured some of the pitfalls that come with being at the very top of the game. Woods, possibly the world?s most recognisable person, has had to deal with the destructive forces of fame virtually since the moment he burst onto the golf scene, in that a certain element of society has tried to break him down in some of the most insidious ways.
The rumour mill
Mickelson has suffered some similar treatment, being chastised by many for his supposed high-stakes gambling habits, and being forced to listen to some wild tabloid-type rumours ? rumours that are so twisted and unfounded that they don?t warrant further mention.
?I?ve never understood and probably never will fully understand what Tiger goes through,? Mickelson admits honestly, ?but I?ve gotten a little taste of it [after the first Masters win].?
That taste was sobering for Mickelson, who spends more time than any other player on the PGA Tour signing autographs for the fans after both practice and competitive rounds.
?It?s been very interesting to hear some of the stuff that?s been said about me, some of the hurtful stuff, some of the malicious rumours I?ve heard about me,? he says.
When Mickelson suddenly withdrew from a tournament in Las Vegas in the autumn of 2004, stories circulated that he had spent the night high-stakes gambling and couldn?t answer the alarm for his Saturday morning tee time.
?I?m allergic to smoke and I don?t like the taste of alcohol,? Mickelson says. ?So, the only [vice] I enjoyed was gambling a little bit.?
Mickelson, however, says he became violently sick en route to the course and went directly to the hospital. ?One minute
I heard I was up $4 million and the next minute I heard I was down $4 million,? he says. ?It was ridiculous.?
Despite the fact that, the last time anyone checked, gambling is legal in Las Vegas and other places, Mickelson cannot insist more strongly that he hasn?t gambled since his third child, Evan, was born in March 2003 after a pregnancy that was so difficult he nearly lost both his son and his wife.
?I?m allergic to smoke and I don?t like the taste of alcohol,? Mickelson says. ?So, the only [vice] I enjoyed was gambling a little bit.? Mickelson, who wrote about the reason he ceased gambling in the book he and Amy wrote entitled One Magical Sunday, has been reticent to talk publicly about the gambling because he feels like it only adds fuel to the rumours that dog him.
Asked how he handles the constant innuendo, Mickelson says, ?When I hear things said that are malicious, I have to call every one of the companies I represent and let them know, ?I want you to know this rumour is going around; here?s the deal.? I?ve had to make sure everyone knew what was being said and how it wasn?t true.?
Billy Mayfair, Mickelson?s closest friend on the PGA Tour, marvels at how Phil handles the bad hands that fame deals him at times.
?I know Phil very well and I think he conducts himself the best among the top guys out here,? says Mayfair.
?I think sometimes he?s opened his mouth and let people take shots at him, but he?s gotten to the point now where he doesn?t let that bother him. I figure if something would be true, either Phil or Amy would tell my wife Tammy and I and we?d help them deal with it,? Mayfair adds.
PGA Tour veteran Nick Price says he?s not surprised when he hears crazy rumours. ?The higher up the pedestal you get, the bigger the target you make,? the popular South African says. ?When you get to the top of that pedestal, there are more people looking at you and there are more people taking dead aim at you.?
Mickelson may not be on the very top of the pedestal just yet but if he can continue to distance himself from the rumour-mongers and concentrate on his game as he has done over the past two years, a strong second half of 2006 could see him within touching distance of Tiger ? and building on what has already become an enthralling rivalry.
Mark Cannizzaro is golf correspondent on the New York Post