In sports, there are gods, and just beneath them are humans that occasionally attain the godly heights. When I say “god” here, I mean it in the Greco-Roman sense of fallible immortals, man-like creatures who nevertheless have harnessed supernatural power and seem to exist beyond our plane. Tiger Woods is such a god; even his foibles are legendary in scope. We can observe him and marvel, but we’ve never been allowed into his sanctum; we’ve never known him, because he’s made himself unknowable. Only recently have his fellow players been allowed close enough for that.
Phil Mickelson, by contrast, is human. He’s climbed the Olympuses (Olympii?) of his sport often enough that the gods know him by name. And like Hercules, he’ll be mentioned in their sagas, but you can’t confuse him for a god. He’s a person of ego, of temptation, of cunning and humour. When a gallery shouts for Tiger, they’re doing it to hear a sound – the epic syllables, the fearsome name. They’re doing it for the echo. When they shout for Phil, they’re shouting for him, for the grinning older brother we all wish we could have.
When Mickelson won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island last month, it was perfect: a deserved final reward for a career of thrilling adventures, a capstone on one of the greatest résumés of all time. But now, if he won a US Open – the thing he’s never done, and an absence that dominates the discourse each June – it would be too perfect. A career Grand Slam would transform him into a god, and he’s never been a god. A flawed champion is a champion forever, but his career only retains its strange poetry if there is a final flaw in the record. For Phil Mickelson to win a US Open is to erase the true meaning of Phil Mickelson.
What will you remember about him when he retires?
I’ll remember the risk-taking. “I can resist anything but temptation,” Oscar Wilde once said, and we see that same irresistible pull with Mickelson on the course. In the years before he won his first Major – long years, it’s easy to forget, that lasted all the way to age 33 and his first Masters title, raising the question of what it might have looked like in the social-media era when we won’t leave a lesser golfer like Rickie Fowler alone – it seemed like a tragic flaw, like he was too much of a gambler to survive four days of the Major cauldron. It wasn’t, of course, and now he has six Majors. Even after he got the monkey off his back, though, he never lost the wide eyes, the surge of adrenaline, the Sunday surge, and the sense that anything could happen for the simple fact that he would try anything. (Not to mention all the actual gambling stories, both good and not so good.)
I’ll remember the love. The younger generation idolises Tiger, but they love Phil. He has a way of commanding loyalty, and a history of taking players under his wing and defending them in situations like the 2014 Ryder Cup, when he felt that they were being treated unfairly. (Which isn’t to say there wasn’t a lot of self-interest in his takedown of Tom Watson, mind you.) He possesses, and has always possessed, an abundance of charisma.
I’ll remember the weirdness. The dancing and the petulance and the calves and the hitting from the hospitality tent. I’ll remember the intelligence and the ego, which can best be summed up by the idea that he always thought he was the smartest guy in the room, and he was often right. Yet as I once wrote, his “dogmatic insistence on the clear explanation” is a subverted desire to “impose order on a life whose rhythms depend on quantum bursts of intuition”. The intelligence was a useful cover. I will, needless to say, remember the chaos.
And I will remember the US Opens. Those runner-up finishes, six of them now. It’s notable that the narrative could have been killed very early on, in 1999, when he faltered down the stretch to lose at Pinehurst. (To me, that fact is reminiscent of another player missing the career slam by just one Major, Rory McIlroy, who could have and should have won the 2011 Masters.) The story of Phil’s US Open misses took on a strong hint of curse in 2006 at Winged Foot, his fourth runner-up and closest call yet, and was cemented with his runner-up at Merion in 2013, the first time he held the 54-hole lead. There’s a temptation to use a “white whale” metaphor for the elusive last Major, but Ahab was only concerned about the whale, hence the monomania. Phil’s career has been defined by a thousand different elements, between which he careens like a rubber ball in a 10-walled room. He doesn’t particularly need the US Open, but the fact that he can’t have it is absolutely part of his story.
And so it should remain, I think. A flawed hero should have a flawed résumé, and frankly, the incessant chatter about Phil Mickelson and the US Open, while understandable, wrongly implies that winning is imperative. It’s not. His legacy is secure, his personality and career so outsized that those of us who watched him compete will never forget. A victory at his national open would put too neat a finish on a man who was never so tame that he’d fit in a tidy box.
If somebody were to ask you 50 years from now to describe Phil Mickelson, you would never say “career Grand Slam winner” even if it were true. There’s so much more to the story; so much drama, so much glory, so much mess. Six runner-ups is more profound, and more interesting, than a single victory, and paints a better picture of a unique champion. May he always come close, and may there always be one peak he never ascends.