I was not a Phil Mickelson fan long before it was cool to be not a Phil Mickelson fan.
I don't know why, exactly. Something about him always struck me as off. I came into golf idolizing Arnold Palmer. Arnold was authentic. He played boldly. He wore his heart on his sleeve and showed it to the fans with every shot -- even for fans like me, who came to golf decades after Arnie had been in his prime. Oh, and like me, Arnold was from Western Pennsylvania ... so he was a prominent member of the local sports pantheon.
Phil always felt to me like somebody who wanted people to think he was Arnold Palmer. But he wasn't.
So, I wasn't a Phil fan. In fact, I think he's the only golfer I've ever actively rooted against. By the time he became "the best player yet to win a major," I was invested in the idea of him never winning a major! I not only wasn't a fan; I thought the lack of a major -- the tries and the failures -- made him a more compelling figure in the sport.
Back in 2000, I recall a conversation with my friend and frequent golfing partner, Gregg. We were talking during British Open week about Phil's chances, and I shared a bit of a fantasy I had ... that late, late in his career, having never won a major, Phil would find himself with a two-stroke lead on the 18th hole at the British Open. He'd hit a great drive and then knock his ball on the green. His win practically secured, the crowd would swell around him as has long been a tradition as the final group comes up the fairway on the 18th at the Open Championship.
In my fantasy of the moment, the celebratory crowd -- the swarm -- would get larger and larger around Phil. He'd be all smiles ... high-fiving fans and his caddie. The crowed would close in around him. The TV cameras would lose site of him in the euphoric chaos of the moment. The crowd would make its way toward the green. It would begin to disband. And Phil would just be gone. Gone! He would never get to the green, never sink the winning putt, never win a major, and we'd never know where he went. It would be one of the great, unsolved mysteries of the game forever.
That was my fantasy. And every major that came and went without a Phil win, I celebrated. I took to calling him "Choke Chokelson."
Does that make me a bad person? If so, I can live with that.
But then Phil won the Masters in 2004, and it all fell apart. Still, I couldn't bring myself to like him. I rooted against him.
In 2006, when Phil stepped to the 18th tee at Winged Foot needing just a par to win the U.S. Open, I was gathered with my family in my father's game room, watching the tournament play out. And I remember saying, "I hope he hits his drive into the hospitality tents."
Yep ... I don't know if I manifested it, but I definitely called it!
Everybody in the room looked at me. I watched Phil setting up over his second shot and said, "I hope he cranks this one right into the trees."
And he did! At this point, my family was pretty sure we were watching a video replay and that I'd somehow already seen what would happen.
"Let's see a bunker ball here," I said. And, by God, Phil plugged his third shot in a greenside bunker.
I stopped calling the shots after that, but Phil didn't disappoint (me). His short game failed him, he doubled the hole, and he never did win the U.S. Open.
In more recent years, as Phil let more of his goofy (strange?) personality show through ... with all the talk about his calves and coffee and hitting "bombs" ... I actually found myself coming around to him a bit. But just a bit.
Then this ridiculousness with the Saudi-backed Super Golf League. Set aside just how tone deaf Phil's initial public comments about the idea of an SGL were -- all the talk of the PGA Tour's "obnoxious greed." I thought he might have some legitimate points with regard to the way players are compensated. It's always been strange to me that there isn't some minimum income guaranteed -- a couple hundred thousand dollars, maybe -- for any player who earns a PGA Tour card. I love the idea of Tour players only earning an incredible living if they play well, but there's so much money on the Tour, it does seem you could guarantee that a struggling Tour player isn't going to have to worry about bankruptcy as he pays all of his own travel costs, etc. that are covered for, say, even backup players on a Major League Baseball roster. So there's maybe a legitimate discussion to be had about the finances of the Tour and the fortunes of its players. But if that was what Phil wanted, he went about it in entirely the wrong way. And, honestly, I don't think that's what he wanted.
Things only got worse for Phil this past week when golf writer Alan Shipnuck shared excerpts from his forthcoming Mickelson autobiography -- excerpts in which Mickelson practically bragged about his behind-the-scenes efforts to get the Saudi League up and running ... and not only acknowledged but essentially dismissed the atrocious human rights record of the Saudi royal family and their murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Phil couldn't be bothered to have a conscience about participating in a league financed by those folks because he saw it as an opportunity for him to play puppet master in the world of golf.
But boy did he miscalculate. As Shipnuck's excerpts became public, PGA Tour players began to forcefully distance themselves from Phil and the SGL. KPMG -- Phil's sponsor for well over a decade -- dropped him like a found Top Flite. And after days of silence following the Shipnuck bombshell, Phil issued an awful "apology" statement in which he simultaneously pretended he was sorry, held himself up as a hero and a martyr in the world of golf, attempted to deflect blame, and sought to discredit a respected journalist (Shipnuck) by claiming that his comments had been "off the record," printed "out of context," and shared publicly without his permission ... all of which Shipnuck has publicly refuted in no uncertain terms.
Maybe it's because I'm a writer and a PR person, but Phil's "apology" and his attempt to throw Shipnuck under the bus bother me almost as much as everything he actually said and thinks about the Saudi royals and the SGL. Could be worse, I guess ... if it were up to his pals in Saudi Arabia, they would have just made Shipnuck disappear. Still, it's a disgusting, character revealing turn from Lefty the Villain.
And I'm not the only one who thinks so, not by a mile. USA Today writer Eamon Lynch published a devastating takedown of Phil and his "apology" today, and I hope folks will take a few minutes to give it a read.
I don't know what the future holds for Phil. People love a redemption story. Sports fans love a comeback. He'll probably recover from this ... eventually. After all, none of this changes the fact that he is an incredible talent on the golf course. But I can't say I've been much surprised to see this off-course drama play out the way that it has; I'm really only surprised that it's taken this long for people to see Phil the way I always have.
By the way ... when Phil found himself leading the PGA Championship last year -- incredibly, at nearly 51 years old ... walking up the 18th fairway, the crowd swarmed around him.
They closed in on him.
They surrounded him.
And this was my reaction:
My fantasy was finally coming true!
Of course, Phil did emerge and did win the tournament.
He didn't disappear into the crowd forever.
But ... as he takes some time away from the game now to reflect on what's happened since, he (and the rest of us) might just wish that he had.
Think I nailed this blog ... or that I'm as far off the mark as a Phil Mickelson drive on the 18th tee at Winged Foot? Drop a comment below or send me an email at email@example.com to let me know what you think!