‘Lefty’ has shown the right way to play golf

Phil Mickelson may have been a late-bloomer in the sport and his personal life has seen a few setbacks, yet his career proves nice guys do not have to finish last, writes Steve Elling.

Phil Mickelson proved he was not done with golf yet, when he won the British Open at the age of 43 last year. Andy Lyons / Getty Images
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It is a few days before Christmas, and Phil Mickelson has settled into his home office in suburban San Diego to answer some emails and address some other business-related fare.

These are comfortable and familiar environs, to say the least. Several of the trophies collected by the five-time major winner are on display at the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida, where he was recently enshrined, but other indications of Mickelson’s scattershot interests are within full view.

Mickelson does a quick inventory. There are family photos, a basketball-sized meteor that weighs 300 pounds, plus a petrified dinosaur head from China, presents from his wife, Amy, who uses creativity to find gifts for a man who has everything.

Second among active golfers on the list of PGA Tour wins, Mickelson is hardly short on personal golf memorabilia, though.

Trophies from an amateur career that included a US Amateur and three college individual national titles decorate the room. Plus, a certain new addition to the Mickelsonian institute of keepsakes.

“The Claret Jug,” he said.

For those familiar with his record of futility at the world’s oldest major, the fact that Mickelson holds the trophy from the British Open seems as historically unlikely as somebody using a 98-million-year-old dinosaur skull as a paperweight.

Despite nearing a point when carbon dating could be used to determine his age – 43 – Mickelson moved a step closer to completing the career grand slam last July at Muirfield, blowing past the biggest names in the game over the final nine holes to win the British Open for the first time.

“It was very satisfying. It took me 22 years to win the Open Championship, and it took me a while to believe I had the game to win one and also to develop the game to win one,” he said.

“The fact I managed to play what was one of the best 18 holes of my career on that final Sunday, and having the family there to take it all in, made it one of the very best weeks of my life.”

It was an intoxicating end that has created a dizzying possibility.

With three Masters victories and a PGA Championship already to his credit, Mickelson needs only the US Open to join the ranks of the game’s truly elite as a career-slam winner.

Only five players have won all four majors in the professional era, and Mickelson’s 2014 calendar will be constructed around that elusive pursuit. He begins the season this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where he is playing for the second time.

Mickelson has finished second at the US Open an agonising, record-setting six times, including in 1999 at Pinehurst, where the event will again be staged this summer. He spent much of the off-season weighing the choreography.

“At this stage, I’m still working out my schedule and will be making decisions about how to have some time off before building towards the big events and being mentally and physically peaking for them,” he said.

“I ended up grinding through the last two months last year and didn’t have much to show for it.”

Oh, but what a summer.

Mickelson went to the United Kingdom a week before the British Open and won the European Tour’s Scottish Open before adding the title at Muirfield, an astounding double for a player who rarely travelled abroad over the first 15 years of his career.

As recently as 2006, Mickelson’s only appearance outside the US was the British Open. A year later, he played non-majors in China, Singapore and Scotland, and began to spread his wings. The second-biggest fan favourite on the US tour, he had been criticised at times for his insular, one-dimensional schedule.

Turns out that his game travels well, after all.

“I have no regrets about my scheduling earlier in my career, or these days,” Mickelson said. “I enjoy playing around the world, early in the year in the Middle East and in China, and Malaysia late. But when I started out more than 20 years ago, I was at a very different stage in my career. I was focused on making a mark on the PGA Tour.”

Before the twin wins last July, he had never won in Britain.

“Then Amy and I got married and we started to have children, which was a much bigger priority than spending extra time away from home,” said Mickelson, who has three children between the ages of 10 and 14. “As the kids grew, it made more sense for me to play more overseas, because I could take the family, and we’ve had wonderful trips around the world together. I think I have a great balance now.”

With four big overseas wins since 2007, Mickelson reinvented himself as a world player, but his makeover in the British Open has been nothing short of remarkable. He had rarely sniffed contention, coming close in 2004, then shot 30 on the front nine on Sunday to storm into contention in 2011 at Royal St George’s.

Long decried as too stubborn to make the adjustments necessary to play the Old World links game, Mickelson finally saw the light.

“I’d say the turning point was in 2004, when I finished a shot out of the play-off at Royal Troon,” he said. “I think I finally really appreciated what it took to seriously compete for the jug that week. Certainly the 30 early on Sunday at St George’s helped convince me I could win the Open.”

He is hardly the first player to be a late-bloomer at the British Open. The past three winners – Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson – were in their 40s. It represents the first time over the past century that men of their maturity have won one of the majors three years in succession.

“Golf is a game for all ages,” Mickelson said. “Tom Watson’s Open performance in 2009 shows that. Experience comes into play in a big way on the final Sunday of any tournament, but Clarke was a links veteran and it was finally his time. Ernie and I had won majors.”

With his family and coach standing along the ropes, the ovation that Mickelson received as he finished with a birdie at Muirfield reached a din seldom heard.

Thousands of signed autographs aside, that the personable Mickelson has conducted himself as a consummate and charismatic professional for two decades was reflected in every huzzah.

Unlike certain contemporaries, Mickelson has never been heard to utter a profane word on the golf course, much less throw a club in disgust. Deportment was learnt from his dad, 35 years ago.

“I was playing with my father when I was eight or nine and I threw a club,” Mickelson said. “He said, ‘It looks like you’re not having any fun out here. Why don’t you just carry your bag until you’re ready to do that.’

“I carried it for the rest of the hole and when we got to the next tee I said, ‘Dad, I’m ready to have fun.’ I’ve haven’t thrown one since. My parents sacrificed so much to give me the chance to be a professional golfer and I’ve always appreciated that and wanted to make them proud of me – both in how I played and behaved on the course.”

Imagine how popular Tiger Woods might be if he acted more like Mickelson, who has handled personal setbacks, psoriatic arthritis and the breast-cancer battles of his wife and mother with class and dignity.

“With everything we have been through, I keep golf in perspective and I have played long enough to know that there will be lots of highs and lows,” he said.

“And while you might have a bad day on the course, it isn’t the end of the world.”