Reason: How flaky Phil became Philanthropist

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 24/07/2013
Phil Mickelson
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FAMILY FIRST: Phil Mickelson, formerly the arrogant player on tour, is now the picture of what a professional sportsman should be.

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OPINION: News just in from Muirfield, Scotland, for a small group of Canterbury rugby fans.

You don't have to be a prat your whole life.

Once upon a time Phil Mickelson was an arrogant kid who earned himself the tour nickname of FIGJAM - f*** I'm good, just ask me. The columns of alabaster teeth would gleam at the spectators, but deep inside flaky Phil was thinking, "What odds can I get on the Cowboys to win by 10."

The Mickelodeon had a gambling problem on and off the course. At one Ryder Cup it was whispered that Mickelson had just changed club manufacturers because he needed the cash to pay off the mob in Vegas. True or not, the rumour seemed to fit in with Mickelson's lifestyle.

On the course he just couldn't stop rolling the dice. At one PGA Championship, when Mister America had shimmied into a big early lead, a desperate fan cried out "Just get in with four pars." But the Philibuster couldn't do that. Why walk over the bridge, when you could tap dance across the water? So Mickelson took on the hazards, rolling the dice off every tee.

"It's the way I have to play the game," he used to explain. "It's my nature."

Yep, the Doctor of Cornbread Philosophy was a natural born loser. Payne Stewart beat him down the stretch, David Toms beat him down the stretch, Tiger Woods beat him so often that it was never a stretch.

There was a Ryder Cup when Hal Sutton, in his big black cowboy hat, paired the two together. Standing on the 18th tee Mickelson carved his drive into the green out of bounds screen. It was reminiscent of a US Open when Mickelson, needing a par on the final hole, hit his drive up against a rubbish bin. Woods looked at the big lunk with utter contempt. You could see the speech bubble above Tiger's head.

"What a loser."

Who is the loser now? The rankings say that Tiger Woods is the world number one, a position that Mickelson has curiously never held. Tiger may have won a few made-for-television events this year, but no serious golf watcher believes that he is the game's true number one any more.

In his last six majors Tiger is 11 under par for his first two rounds and 23 over par for the weekend. The good times may roll again, but right now Tiger is the guy who chokes on Saturday and Sunday. It is hard to credit of the man who used to crush the opposition with his own certainty, but then the mind is a fragile piece of machinery.

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It is now over five years since Woods won his last major. Even the red shirt he wears on Sunday, now seems more of a red rag to a bull. The other players see it and charge.

There was a quote that the Deaker On Sport show used to play in its opening credits.

"Family first?"

"Always," replies Tiger, with the terse earnestness of a man who is almost insulted by the question.

Turns out we were insulted by the answer. The golfer who put family first was Mickelson. He took time out when his wife had breast cancer. He flew back home three days before this year's US Open for daughter Amanda's graduation. He, beeper in pocket, was ready to walk off the course at the 1999 US Open for the birth of his first child.

So when Mickelson posed with his family after winning the Open, well, it wasn't just that, a pose. The golfing Philanderer had become the Philanthropist that Tiger had always pretended to be.

Mickelson's caddie Bones, the only caddie he has ever had, was in tears. Through the emotion, Bones said, "He's fitter than he's ever been. He's hungrier than he's ever been. He's a resilient guy. How many people are going to build a practice facility in their yard past 40?"

Just before Mickelson went out and shot the round of his career, coach Butch Harmon, another link back to the Tiger of old, told his man that even par or one under would get it done.

"I'm going to be better than that," said Mickelson.

That seems to sum up a man who could have let his career lie down on a bed of greenbacks. He wanted to be better than that. There was more to Phil than first appeared. Perhaps more than even he knew.

"I never knew if I would be able to win this tournament," he said after his stupendous closing 66.

The tight lies, the savage rough, the strong winds, they were all once beyond Phil. But he worked and worked and the Philanthropist now joins Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd as a winner of three different majors.

But there is a better list, the winners of the career Grand Slam. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen. And next year's US Open is back at Pinehurst, where it all started all those years ago, where the late Payne Stewart drained the putts to crush Mickelson and then held his face in his hands and told him he was about to be a father.

That was the start of the growing up that Mickelson had to do. And when the great Philanthropist took the walk up Muirfield's home fairway, applauded every step of the way by the home fans, rising to their feet, maybe even the boo boys at Canterbury had a sense of how sport ought to be.

- The Dominion Post

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