PHILADELPHIA — THE ONLY THING more baffling than Phil Mickelson’s inability to finish the deal in a U.S. Open is the delight so many people seem to take in that.
From my vantage point, he appears to be the most unpopular popular person in sports. I don’t get it. Never have.
This week at the Merion Golf Club, where he finished second for an unimaginable sixth time in a U.S. Open, he was prominent for lots of obvious reasons. First, he was at or near the lead the entire tournament. Second, he did the unusual, flying to San Diego the day before the tournament for his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation and flying back just in time for his Thursday 7 a.m. tee time.
That was a story. Mickelson didn’t shove it at the media. We decided. We made it a big deal. Because it was fairly unusual — and because he shot 67 and led the tournament the first day — we were right. Mickelson, accessible and candid, is not going to lie when asked about his whereabouts leading into the Open. His life is a fishbowl. You either embrace it or endure it. He embraces it.
Once the story was written and broadcast in various forms, the reaction — as it always seems to be with anything about Mickelson — was volatile. Emailers and message boards, sadly today’s prevailing gauge of such things, filled up both with praise for his family values and disgust at the praise he was getting. Common themes were: Big deal. He’s a rich guy with access to a private plane; he’s a goody-two-shoes fraud; he smiles too much.
Those who love him and root for him seem to do so based mostly on what they see. Those who hate him and root against him seem to do so based mostly on what they see.
It’s mind-boggling. How can one of the most accommodating pro athletes in the world also be one of the most polarizing? What am I missing here? Who did he bully in seventh grade?
I have avoided writing this for years. I assumed I would eventually get some insight. I haven’t, but the venters and haters never have stopped.
I pondered this as I wrote about the final round in the media center at Merion on Sunday night. On the big screens all around, television continued its recap. It was more than an hour after the finish, and suddenly, there he was.
In a dark field, probably heading to his car, Mickelson was signing away, moving toward his destination but not rushing, making sure he autographed anything desired for all the people who had bothered to stay.
He just finished second for the sixth time in the U.S. Open!
He has a public relations person who once tried to get him to limit his post-event signings to 45 minutes. That lasted about one session.
I once did a one-on-one interview with him after a Skins Game in the desert, sat down, wrote a column, filed it, got a sandwich, ate it, called the office, packed my computer bag, walked out and Mickelson was still signing autographs.
Do I see other golfers do that? No. Does Mickelson do that so I’ll see it and write about it? No.
I am better-suited to write about this because I’m not a regular golf writer. I am fortunate enough to be sent to many great events, but I’m a general columnist. Mickelson knows the regular guys, sometimes even addresses them by their first name. I’m just a vaguely familiar face.
My only agenda here is amazement.
I understand that he put his foot in his mouth earlier this year when he whined about paying too much in taxes. He should have known better. He should have been more sensitive to others who have so much less. Which is what he said. End of story.
On the final day of the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales, Hunter Mahan chunked a chip shot. It ended hopes for the U.S. In the news conference afterward, with the entire U.S. team sitting at a big table, questions began for Mahan.
Mahan was a wreck, near tears. To the rescue came Mickelson, along with Stewart Cink. I’ll take the questions. I screwed up, too, Mickelson said.
Mahan played with Mickelson in Sunday’s final group. Afterward, he said of Mickelson, “He’s a great leader, and being in golf, you don’t hear that word often. … He’s a great guy to admire.”
The anti-Phil group is a minority. But it is vocal and determined. He is not St. Peter. Nor is he Attila the Hun.
Lighten up, folks.