We’d finished the business at hand, talking outside the pro shop at his home golf course, right near my office. I was more than satisfied with the exchange.
“You want to play?” he said. “I’m going out now.”
I had to go back and write, I told Phil Mickelson. The truth, but not the whole truth. I also didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of this extraordinary 17-year-old with my lousy game. But if I’d known I was going to leave the San Diego Union in six months for a job in Philadelphia, I’m pretty sure I would not have let pride get in the way of a story I could have told for years.
I do tell the story, though. All these years later, I might be the only person who has ever turned down a personal invitation from Phil Mickelson to play golf, just the two of us.
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When I took the job in San Diego the year before, they had me cover high schools, splitting up territory with three other writers. I was also to be the backup golf writer, since there was a ton of golf to cover there. There was an intersection of those two beats, and his name was Mickelson.
Over the years, any time Mickelson has done something interesting, either winning or failing to win a big one, I’d think back. Sunday, when Mickelson won the PGA Championship, making history, becoming the oldest golfer to win a major, age 50 … I remembered a 17-year-old. He knocked it in from the sand? I’d seen that before.
Mind you, Mickelson had local competition back then. San Diego was exactly the golf hotbed you’d expect. I’m not sure he even had the low average that year on his high school team. A spectacular South African player named Manny Zerman had moved to San Diego just for that year, and I think he was low in team matches. Zerman already had won the Chilean Amateur, would go on to be runner-up in the U.S. Amateur twice, and low amateur at the Masters. Another teammate played big-time college golf and a rival at another school already, I believe, had reached the final 16 of the U.S. Amateur and had beaten Mickelson in plenty of tournaments.
But Mickelson had the biggest local name already. He was playing in the 1988 San Diego Open as an amateur, and since his high school team played a lot at Torrey Pines, I had the idea of doing a hole-by-hole description with Mickelson providing the description.
He was, as you’d expect, a savant. He could tell you not just where to hit it on a certain hole, but why. How the grass on this portion of that green was beaten down a bit. How that overhanging tree must be dealt with off the tee. He had fun telling me what he knew.
Mickelson ultimately became the People’s Choice in his sport because he wanted to be the People’s Choice. It wasn’t forced. He was naturally easy to talk to, and aimed to please, even as a 17-year-old. Was he a fan of himself? Sure, probably was. He picked the right golfer to like. But he also got used to attention at a young age.
If you didn’t know of him, you still noticed him. My colleague Tom Shanahan, then with the San Diego Tribune, remembers someone in the crowd walking with us at the San Diego Open saying of Mickelson, “That guy looks like he’s in high school.”
There also was somehow a sense of normalcy. His parents were very nice people, entirely approachable. Just walking around the course, they were … normal.
The abnormal part, of course, was what happened after a golf ball left his club. I remember a local high school final. It looked like Harry Rudolph, the other guy, was taking it. I was walking with Rudolph’s father, great guy who owned a coffee shop in La Jolla. Last hole, Rudolph was taking care of business … but then Mickelson pitched in — for eagle, I believe.
“Every time,” Rudolph’s father said, maybe adding an expletive.
If you’d asked people there that day if Phil Mickelson one day could be the oldest winner of a golf major, probably to a person, they’d have said sure. No feat seemed beyond his reach. There was this younger kid up in Orange County already making a name for himself, winning lower age-group titles at the big Optimist Junior World. (You couldn’t help but notice the name Tiger.) But Mickelson was supposed to be the Next One.
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The surprise of his career, if you remember, was that, after winning three NCAA titles, it took so long for Mickelson to win a major. He really spent more than a decade of his prime as the Best Player Never to Win a Major before breaking through at age 33.
The next time I covered Mickelson was at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, writing the first-round sidebar on him, which was a story regardless of score since Mickelson had attended his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation the day before in suburban San Diego, then jumped on a private plane that left the West Coast eight hours before his tee time, which was 7:11 a.m.
He shot 67, his red-eye excursion no factor. The crowd was nuts for him. I pointed out in my story, if he had stopped to count, he could have heard 37 people full-out shout his first name between the time he hit his tee shot and his approach shot on No. 8.
No, I didn’t say to him afterward, “Yo, Phil, remember me?” There’s my pride again. Except I would have sounded pretty dopey. I wasn’t the first guy on the Mickelson beat, and the entire golfing press picked up the baton soon enough.
Mickelson never has gotten his Open. Merion was the last of his six second-place finishes. That’s part of his popularity, of course. He blew his share in epic fashion. But that might be it for regrets, with three Masters wins, a British Open title, now two PGA titles, some Ryder Cup heroics. He’s lived up to his promise.
He just never got his chance to play with me.