CONSIDERING how 2018 has gone for Phil Mickelson, it’s fair to argue that he has had better years. Make that much better years. True, he has a victory on his resume, and he’s 11th on the PGA Tour money list, for the season. And, true, he’s about to be named as a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup, extending his record of consecutive appearances in golf’s premier biennial event to a whopping 12. Since his podium finish in March, however, he has cracked the Top 10 just once and failed to make the weekend at the Players Championship and PGA Championship. Worse, he found himself embroiled in two rules violations, with his United States Open faux pas ranking among the worst ever in the sport.
If Mickelson is anything, however, it’s optimistic. He’s perennially confident in his abilities, fueling his aggressive style on the course and allowing him to make the most of his prodigious skill set — that is, if he’s not overestimating it. Which is why he has looked none the worse for wear through three rounds at the Northern Trust. And if fans require a snapshot of his career, they need only take a gander at his performance yesterday; after a one-over front nine that included a bogey and a double bogey, he punctuated his effort with four birdies in his last seven holes to move to seventh in standings after 54.
Significantly, Mickelson’s predisposition for risk-taking is reflected in his flair for the dramatic. At the par-three second yesterday, he hit a tee shot that felt good from the outset. “Gotta be better than Tiger’s,” a spectator from the gallery exclaimed. “Oh, it is,” he replied, striking a pose and admiring the flight of his ball, which then settled seven and a half feet from the cup. Needless to say, his subsequent swing with the flatstick stayed true for a birdie. In comparison, Woods’ tee shot much earlier in the day ended up 26 feet away, requiring two putts for par.
Speaking of Woods, Mickelson has made no bones about how the greatest golfer of his generation spurred him to do better. Apart from the man himself, he’s the biggest beneficiary of Woods’ dominance and unique crossover appeal, translating the motivation to success inside the ropes and out. He’s second all time in career earnings and arguably makes the most in endorsements of all the sport’s practitioners.
Incidentally, the last time Mickelson wasn’t part of the Ryder Cup was also the last time the United States won it in Europe. No doubt, it will fuel his competitive juices in Paris late next month. It may well be his final appearance for the old red, white, and blue, so he’ll want to make it memorable, with no better outcome than him playing a crucial role in the hardware being transported across continents.
Also up for Mickelson is his one-on-one battle with Woods. And while it’s merely a made-for-television spectacle that counts for squat in the ultimate analysis, pundits can bet their bottom dollar he’ll aim to play — and, yes, trash talk — his way to triumph. Indeed, he’s at his bet when he’s challenging, well, himself, making the thrill of victory and the occasional agony of defeat all the more profound.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.