Given what we already know about Phil Mickelson, it comes as no surprise that he had a mischievous side long before he became famous.
And his sister, Tina, has no issue with dishing some of that dirt.
On a Thanksgiving Day of his youth, it seems that Phil sneaked out of the house with his clubs, paid a neighbor to take him to the local course he had been working at near downtown San Diego — then called Stardust Country Club and now Riverwalk — and managed to play his way around to the back nine before his mom and dad arrived in a golf cart, knowing exactly where to find him.
“My parents were hosting Thanksgiving dinner and had told him he couldn’t play golf,” recalled Tina Mickelson-Topacio. “They made him get in the cart, and as they drove home, Phil knew he was in trouble. But he said, ‘Good golfers are a dime a dozen. I’m good now. But if I don’t practice today, there are other people who are practicing. They’re getting better while I’m not.’
“That was his mentality. My parents had a hard time disagreeing with that. It made them look at the situation in a different way.”
Phil Sr. and Mary Mickelson chuckle at that memory all these years later, a story that captures his personality to this day.
Where did the time go? Their son — the guy who has been in the World Golf Hall of Fame for eight years already — turned 50 on Tuesday and is still competing at a high level, doing and saying things that make that tale of innocence seem prescient.
It was this very week 28 years ago that Mickelson played his first event as a pro at the U.S. Open. He has since competed in more than 600 events, including last week’s Charles Schwab Challenge, where he missed the cut in the first tournament on the PGA Tour’s revised schedule after a 91-day shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. And he has no intention of slowing down.
“It doesn’t seem like he could be 50,” Phil Sr. said during a recent interview. “He doesn’t seem 50 to us, for sure. But he’s a young guy at heart. He’s always a lot of fun to be around and do things with. And if you are playing some sort of game with him, you don’t want to lose because you’ll hear about it.”
Yes, the chirping that Phil does with practice round partners, competitors, media, Twitter followers, even Tiger Woods … extends to his own family, which includes his brother, Tim (the former golf coach at Arizona State), who caddies for him, and Tina, who is a PGA of America professional and has been teaching since 1994.
And it highlights something that is easily blurred by the 44 PGA Tour victories, the five major championships, the 12 consecutive U.S. Ryder Cup teams, the 25-plus years of being ranked among the top 50 in the world, the Hall of Fame induction: Mickelson has been good at golf for as long as anyone can remember.
“We were playing against each other from 6 years old,” said Harry Rudolph, 50, who is now attempting to play senior golf on the Champions Tour. “Every tournament you could have played in, we were there. Back and forth as much as it could be from that age until he started beating everyone. We were always friends, but there was a rivalry there. It was good for both of us. It pushed us to levels we might not have gotten to otherwise.
“You just knew that your competition was working hard. And he worked hard. People don’t realize how much Phil has practiced and dedicated in his life to golf. He loves playing. And he’s done that for a long time. People think it comes easy or that it comes natural. He works his butt off and has his whole career.”
PHIL MICKELSON SR. is a former Navy pilot who eventually became a commercial airline pilot. He started Phil young, with a cut-down club that he swung left-handed to mirror his dad hitting from the right side.
The older Mickelson tried to coax Phil into swinging right-handed, but he kept going to the other side of the ball, so Phil Sr. let that ride, and it resulted in the best left-handed golfer of all time. (Mickelson is right-handed in just about everything else he does.)
Phil’s dad was a good player himself, once a 4-handicap, and he taught his kids the game, trying to keep an arm’s length away so that they would enjoy golf on their own without pushing.
It was clear pretty early that young Philip — that is how Mom and Dad refer to him — had an affinity for the game, with the hand-eye coordination and necessary motivation to excel.
“He won the junior world [the Junior World Championships, an event that attracts players from around the world and dates to 1968] in the 10-year-and-under division,” Phil Sr. said. “At that point, he told me he wanted to be a professional golfer. I remember thinking: You can look at the people you know who play golf. Of the people you are personally acquainted with, what number of people at one time in their life thought they wanted to be a professional golfer?
“Of all those people, when you look at the percentage of success, you think: My son wants to be a professional golfer? One out of how many would succeed at that?
“Instead of pushing him, I told him, ‘You know some people already who wanted to be professional golfers and now they’re instructors or working at a club or in a pro shop. But not a lot of them were successful at it. You need to realize how difficult that would be.’ The more I would tell him how difficult it was, the more convinced he was what he wanted to be; he would try harder. I never had to say that if there was a tournament coming up, that this might be something he ought to work on. He would do it on his own. We would just try to support him.”
It didn’t take long before Phil was piling up platitudes, hauling in trophies and making a name for himself.
“Everyone knew who he was,” said Kevin Riley, another junior rival and the older brother of former PGA Tour player Chris Riley. “Phil was really involved with San Diego junior golf, and that was right before the AJGA [American Junior Golf Association] started taking off. Every time they sent your tee times for a tournament in the mail, the No. 1 player was always in the first group, and that was always Phil. He led off every tournament.”
Said Tina: “I quickly became accustomed to his success on the golf course. I just started to expect it.”
Mickelson won 12 AJGA individual events from 1985 to ’88, a career record that still stands and is four better than the next two: Woods and Bob May. He also had five runner-up finishes and was out of the top 10 just five times. Twice he won four times in a season, tied with Woods for second most in AJGA history.
So accomplished was Mickelson that college golf recruiters were poking around before he was in high school. He eventually chose to play at Arizona State — Steve Loy, Mickelson’s longtime agent and manager, was his coach — where he won a school-record 16 college tournaments, including NCAA individual titles in 1989, 1990 and 1992.
The year he didn’t win? Well, all Mickelson did was capture a PGA Tour event. At the 1991 Northern Telecom Open in Tucson, Mickelson showed a propensity for the wild swings golf fans have become accustomed to seeing.
He played one nine-hole stretch in 29. While leading the final round, he made a triple-bogey 8 on the par-5 14th hole but birdied two of his last three holes, with an 8-foot putt at the last, to defeat Tom Purtzer and Bob Tway by a stroke. He remains the last amateur to win on the PGA Tour, a feat accomplished just eight times.
That was in 1991, and Mickelson has been a fully exempt player on the PGA Tour ever since. But he delayed turning pro, deciding to stay in school for his senior year, knowing that he would have a place to play immediately upon turning professional.
“He had the greatest amateur record, junior record since [Jack] Nicklaus,” said Dean Reinmuth, Mickelson’s first teacher. “He was clearly that good. Nicklaus, [Ben] Crenshaw and Phil. He won three NCAAs. He won the U.S. Amateur. He won a tour event as an amateur. Qualified for the San Diego Open at 16. He played in the L.A. Open. There wasn’t anyone close to him until Tiger came along.”
It is interesting to note the comparison to Woods in those pre-moneymaking days. Tiger, of course, was well known for several TV appearances going back to when he was 2 years old before he racked up all kinds of victories just up the road in Orange County. Five years younger, Woods excelled in United States Golf Association events, winning the U.S. Junior three straight years followed by three successive U.S. Amateur titles, an unprecedented run of success.
Woods stayed in college for only two years, winning one NCAA title. But he never sniffed a pro title as an amateur. Woods’ amateur career is rightfully heralded as one of the best of all time; Mickelson’s is largely underrated.
“The biggest thing was, when he hit a bad shot, it didn’t faze him,” said Reinmuth, his first coach. “There wasn’t anything that shook him. Like when a boxer gets punched. I caddied for him at the L.A. Open [where Mickelson got an invite in 1988 as a high school senior], and he hit a shot on a par-3 [No. 6] on the fence line. He walked over there, grabbed an L-wedge, flipped it on the green to about 3 feet and made it.
“It’s those kinds of things in that arena, in that moment … he had that much confidence in his short game. He could just get it up and down. You’d think he shot 73, but it would be 67, 68, 69. He’d miss a green and get it up and down. Never got to him. Other kids would get down.”
SINCE MISSING THE CUT in his first pro tournament, the 1992 U.S. Open, Mickelson has gone on to those 44 PGA Tour wins, including five major championships. Starting with the 1994 U.S. Open — he missed the Masters that year due to a broken leg he suffered when skiing — Mickelson has missed just two majors, and neither was due to injury.
In 2009, he missed The Open because his wife, Amy, was being treated for breast cancer. In 2017, he skipped the U.S. Open for his daughter’s high school graduation.
From late 1993 through late 2019, Mickelson was never outside the top 50 in the world — a total of 1,353 weeks, longer than any other player in the Official World Golf Ranking era that dates to 1986.
Although Mickelson has never made it to No. 1 in the world, he spent 270 weeks at No. 2 — all of them right behind Woods. And he has won 35 PGA Tour titles in the Woods era, a number that by itself would rank 14th all time. His 44 wins overall is ninth.
Now ranked 61st, Mickelson has other goals. He’s not yet in this year’s U.S. Open, whose qualification criteria for the postponed event to be played in September have yet to be announced. Getting there means a return to Winged Foot, site of one of his most excruciating losses, when a double bogey on the 72nd hole in 2006 cost him a chance at victory.
Mickelson has said he doesn’t have much interest at this time in the PGA Tour Champions, so he will keep competing on the PGA Tour, where just seven players age 50 or older have won.
You can bet Phil is well aware of any doubters.
“If you tell Phil he can’t do something, you know exactly what he is going to do,” said his mom, Mary. “Even as a little boy, we never expected this would last. He was so young, but golf was all he thought of. He’d watch it on TV, read books on golf. Practice every minute he had.
“We used to say, ‘How cute is that.’ We’d say, ‘Why don’t you learn how to change a tire on a car?’ and he’d say, ‘No, I’m going to be so successful as a golfer, I’m going to hire somebody to do it. I’ll be practicing.’ Of course, we told him he had to learn how to change a tire. But golf was his dream. He was going to do it.”
And he has quite well — for a long time.