Good Men Project — How I learned to like Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson, golf, championship

As golf journalist and fan, Tim O’Connor has disparaged superstar golfer Phil Mickelson as an insincere showboat for years. On Sunday, something changed.

(Originally published July 24, 2013)

I never found myself in either the love or hate Phil Mickelson camp. I just didn’t like him.

For about 20 years, I’ve watched Phil the Thrill as a journalist and fan, My usual response was to roll my eyes at the goofy grin, the lope, the animated gestures and think something along the lines of “Oh brother, give it up.”

I’ve been wondering about my anti-Phil stance recently, but his incredible come-from-behind victory in the Open Championship—for his fifth major championship–and the aftermath on Sunday has finally won me over.

But it’s not what he did that changed my mind. That’s despite my history of disdain for the Californian known as Lefty. (Even his prototypically American jock nickname irritated me.)

Carrying only a notebook, I tried to engage him a few times in a locker room or practice ground during the 1990s, but each he blew me off with a “sorry” and a thousand-mile stare. Yet, he’d stop for the guys with TV cameras. I found him to be insincere, the poster boy for disingenuous.

It’s a sentiment shared by many media folks, and a key reason he made GQ’s 2006 list of The Ten Most Hated Athletes. The story also said his nickname among PGA Tour players was Figjam (Fuck, I’m good—just ask me).

More recently, when he clapped for opponent Justin Rose in last fall’s Ryder Cup, it just seemed…overdone. Wouldn’t it have sufficed to just flash a thumbs-up?

Defending boundaries will make anyone seem like a jerk sometimes. Hell, I can be a jerk.

The family man bit always struck me as way over the top, going back to the wearing a beeper when Amy was preggers with Amanda (their first) in the 1999 U.S. Open which he lost to Payne Stewart. It just seemed overly demonstrative. Couldn’t one of his peeps let him know in a heartbeat if something was up?

At tournaments, Amy—presumably with Phil’s blessing—seemed to arrange the family in just the right places for the cameras to capture the family post-victory embrace.

Well, the post-victory embrace after his Open Championship win on Sunday got me. That was beautiful. The post-round TV interview was typically boyishly charming and witty. He was over-flowing with joy.

While sitting there, I became aware of my face—that for about the past five minutes I had been smiling. On Sunday night, I thought about it and I realized that my difficulty with Phil was my difficulty with me.

Underneath my exterior reserve, I want to be effusive Phil. I would love to hug my kids in public like Phil and Amy. I want to flash a radiant smile, let myself freewheel, and be utterly transparent with my emotions—from bountiful joy to grief. Be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy.

Ok, maybe he was a jerk to me—and other media types—about 15 years ago. Hell, maybe something was bothering him when I approached him, or he just needed to stay on a schedule. Maybe he knew the TV guys. Or something.

Defending boundaries will make anyone seem like a jerk sometimes. Hell, I can be a jerk. I can’t control how others are going to react to me. Neither can Phil.

I came to realize that what I wanted for myself I saw in Phil. I took what frustrated me about myself and pasted it all over him. When I disparaged Phil, I inadvertently took a swipe at myself. Unconsciously, I went “I want to do what you do, but I don’t have the courage.”

Hey, Lefty. Thanks for showing me—and other men—how a man can be tough as nails when he needs to be, and go after what he wants with conviction, flash and swagger.

And thanks for being openly tender and loving. Now I see you clearly as a man unabashedly in love with his family.

If you win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst next year, I will likely blubber like your caddy Peter “Bones” Mackay did Sunday. And I’d love it.

Read more from Men’s Work

Image credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!