How Little We Think of Phil
If you can bear to watch, keep this in mind during your Open Championship viewing this week: We think very little of Phil Mickelson.
Forget the fact that he dropped a nuclear 79 Thursday morning and has practically the entire field between him and the lead. Coming into this tournament, the world was supposed to think, “Oh, Tiger’s gone! This is Phil’s chance!” CBS Sportsline’s Steve Elling had the audacity to print an article titled: “While cat’s away, Lefty has shot to really play.” Really, now? That’s what this has come to? Tiger is now part of a causal statement; i.e., x causes y. In this case, Tiger’s absence is supposed to cause Phil Mickelson’s contention for the championship.
If that’s the case—if this is supposed to be the universal thought—then why on Earth do we watch this sport to begin with? To somehow believe that Tiger Woods’ relaxation in the States is supposed to open the door for Lefty is two things: (1) it’s woefully inaccurate, and (2) it’s quite insulting. It’s not like Phil Mickelson is Tiger’s Greg Norman; it’s not like the man should be buried in a silver coffin. Do you know how many times Phil has finished second to Tiger in a major championship? One. One stinking event. It was the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, and Phil finished a nondescript three shots back. Outside of that one tournament that one year, Mickelson would’ve had to overcome other champions to claim victory.
As such, we sharp-minded pundits think an awful lot of our lovable Lefty, because if this scenario gives Phil Mickelson the opportunity to literally rise to the occasion and capture (to borrow a phrase from my soccer colleagues) European glory, then Phil Mickelson is quite possibly the most feeble competitor in professional sports. Is Tiger’s will branded onto Phil’s competitive spirit that much? Does it take a Tiger-less field for Phil to say, “Now, I really have my shot?”
For heaven’s sake, look at Rafa Nadal. Yeah, yeah—tennis and golf are two different animals, but that should make the staredown between number one and number two all the more pure and meaningful. Rafa Nadal took out Roger Federer, an athletic king of equal prowess and dominance as Tiger, on Roger Federer’s home court. Rafa the apprentice went toe to toe with Roger the master, and for one day, at least, the master was slain (although similar outcomes may doubtlessly be on the horizon). And not to go completely Star Wars on you, but if Rafa is supposed to be Annakin and Roger plays the part of Obi-Wan, Lefty is one of those Jedi who may as well have been an extra and was killed off-camera in Episode III—he allegedly has the talent, he has the name and title, but more often than not, he vanishes without anyone really noticing.
Who knows what Mickelson does the rest of this week? Does he fold? Does he make the cut? Does he contend on Sunday? For the purpose of this debate, all of those things are irrelevant. The insult has already been leveled: Phil Mickelson can seize the day, because Tiger Woods’ shadow is nowhere to be seen. Yes, Phil Mickelson is somewhat of a mental wonder; the ’06 U.S. Open, like the ’99 Open Championship before it, will forever be a shining example of temporary retardation, insanity, or something along those lines. But as it relates to the omnipresent Tiger Woods, Phil’s mental struggles are hardly temporary. Everywhere he walks, every tournament in which he plays, the idea is bandied about: “Can he overcome it?”
“It” has meant so many things in Phil Mickelson’s career. For a while, “it” was winning a major title. Then, for a brief moment in ’06, “it” was the thought of defeating the barrier that lay between him and the pinnacle of golf. But all throughout then and now, there has been one constant “it” for Phil Mickelson to overcome, and that is the thought of overtaking Tiger—not in the rankings, not for year, just for a Sunday. He’s vanquished Tiger before, but it was Tiger among a horde of top-five finishers, and it’s happened only twice. Never has Phil taken Tiger down, to use the egregiously inaccurate colloquialism, “mano y mano.”
And to make matters worse, not only will he not receive another opportunity this week, but now he is faced with obtaining the spotlight that has been left absent. Now, it’s not “mano y mano,” but “mind vs. mind.”
And with Tiger Woods at home, it’s not Phil’s mind vs. Tiger’s mind—it’s Phil’s mind vs. Phil’s mind. How little we think of him for that being the case, and how true it’s shown itself to be in the past.