Love is in the air for Phil Mickelson at the CareerBuilder Challenge, the valley’s celebrated January pro golf tournament. Many factors contribute to this heart-shaped state of affairs.
“It’s always just about perfect,” Mickelson says. “Sunshine, no wind, great courses. It is the ideal place to get your game in shape, your swing grooved. Some [professional] players come here in January just to do that. They don’t even play in the tournament. They just come to practice.”
It is deeply satisfying for Mickelson to return to a place and a tournament where he has won twice, in 2002 and 2004. Also, it is gratifying to play in the valley where he has owned a home for years.
But Mickelson’s infatuation goes deeper than nice weather, comfort level, and success. For him, the desert tournament is a gigantic Hallmark card memory.
“It was 1993, my first time at the tournament,” he recalls. “I wasn’t much, just a new guy out there on the tour … but it was the first time I brought Amy along.”
Amy McBride was the Phoenix Suns cheerleader Mickelson began dating a few years earlier, during his senior year at Arizona State University. By then, he was a three-time NCAA champion and a four-time college golf All-American, who had already, as an amateur, won a pro event — the 1991 Telecom Open in Tucson. Impressive credentials for a kid, but tour rookies often only draw galleries numbering in the single digits.
Mickelson’s unpredictable play has earned him the sobriquet Phil the Thrill. Still, his 51 professional victories, including 3 Masters titles, a PGA Championship, and an Open Championship, make him one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
“There were maybe eight people watching,” Mickelson says. “One of them was my cousin, who chatted as we walked along. After about four or five holes, he says, ‘Hey, I think I have something good going here. There’s this gorgeous blonde, and she keeps following me. She’s stayed right with us for every hole.’ ”
Mickelson didn’t say a word. He had just hired a new caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, who handled the situation like a professional.
“News flash, buddy,” Bones told Mickelson’s cousin.
MacKay is still Mickelson’s caddie, still with him after all these years, through 42 PGA Tour victories, nine European titles, and five majors. More important, so is Amy. They were married in 1996, they have three children, and she continues to be the “gorgeous blonde” in Mickelson’s gallery.
That gallery will take on new dimensions this year at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jan. 18–22, where Mickelson will certainly be one of the favorites to win if he is not sidelined by the sports hernia surgery he underwent in early December. Regardless, his presence will be greatly felt — Mickelson will serve as the tournament’s “ambassador.”
That’s significant on several levels.
This year marks the 58th time this tournament has been played in the desert. It grew out of what was originally the Thunderbird Invitational and, starting in 1960, became the Palm Springs Classic. In 1965, after a dinner conversation between Bob Hope and President Dwight Eisenhower about the need to raise some charitable funds, it became the Bob Hope Classic. Arnold Palmer won the tournament twice before Hope’s name was even attached (1960 and ’62) and then won it three more times for good measure. Palmer’s last PGA tour victory was in 1973 at the Hope. After that, Palmer served as both an official and unofficial brand ambassador for the desert event.
Hope’s name may no longer be on banners or in newspaper headlines, but it will always be the heartbeat. If the tournament had a big enough stone, Hope’s name would be chiseled on it. Right next to it would be Palmer’s.
When the Clinton Foundation bowed out, the event operating unit, Desert Charities, and sponsor CareerBuilder were gifted with a slam-dunk decision: Mickelson would become the tournament’s new face.
Ambassador? Spokesman? Host? It doesn’t matter what they call him. It’s Phil.
John Foster, longtime tournament official and president of Desert Charities, was at lunch last May when Mickelson’s new role was to be announced. Foster excused himself before dessert and revealed upon his return that he had snuck off to send out a news release naming Mickelson “ambassador.” Foster, who would never on earth be described as “bubbly,” could not, and did not, contain his delight.
“Perfect,” he announced.
hen, in September, when the venerable Palmer died at 87, Mickelson’s role took on additional gravitas. Unfair as it may seem to Mickelson, he is stepping into the golf shoes of legends.
“It’s not like this is my tournament,” he says. “Arnie and Jack Nicklaus, they had their own tournaments. I don’t think you should overstate this. Plus, this is just the first year of my involvement. We are just getting started. It is kind of a dip-the-toe-in-the-water right now.”
Fair enough. But soon, Mickelson is talking about 2018, about more fan involvement, more TV access around the course, maybe even some concerts. There is even a suggestion that he is open to hearing about needs for improved media facilities and access.
Nick Raffaele, new tournament director, who says he has worked with Mickelson before and that Mickelson’s presence made accepting the job a great deal easier, says, “I have never found Phil to do anything halfway.” Raffaele signed on June 9, about three weeks after Mickelson was named ambassador.
It is not easy to come to grips with the reality of being thrust into a position once held by the likes of Arnie Palmer. For Mickelson, this is not somebody he read about in a book, or a guy who made him teary-eyed during a documentary. At age 46, he has been around long enough, and been prominent enough, to call many golf legends his friends.
An area sports columnist interviewed
Phil Mickelson, wrote his column, filed
it to his newspaper, went outside to his car,
and found Mickelson still signing autographs.
“I was still in college when I got an invitation to play the 1991 Masters,” he says. “The first person I called was Mr. Palmer.”
That set up a practice round in which Mickelson and Palmer were teammates. Palmer was 61 then.
“We were playing for something like a $5 Nassau,” Mickelson says. “All of a sudden, Arnie birdies Nos. 7, 8, and 9. Now I see that glimpse in his eye, that glimpse of Palmer. He loves this. The competitive fire is still burning. I’ll never forget that.”
Nor will Mickelson forget the end of that practice round.
“We get to No. 18,” he continues, “and Arnie pulls me over, grabs me by the arm, and takes me over to the side of the fairway. He says, ‘This is where it happened, right here, on this very spot, in 1961. George Low comes up to me and tells me I got it locked, that there is no way I can lose this.’ ”
Of course, there was a way. Palmer, who had won the Masters the year before, hit his approach into a bunker, hit over the green from out of the bunker, and double-bogeyed the 18th. That gave the title to Gary Player.
“He was still angry about that,” Mickelson recalls. “It still got his competitive juices flowing, just being at the spot.”
And who was George Low?
He was the ultimate golf nomad. He helped the greats with putting tips, designed putters that carried his name, and generally lived off the scraps and perks of the tour while seldom competing for its real paychecks. The Los Angeles Times Pulitzer prize–winning sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote of Low: “The only things he ever paid for were cigarettes and the Racing Form. … The IRS didn’t know he even existed.”
Golf is truly a game of legends, and if the game abounds with anything, it is its legendary stories. And hearing them from a legend himself bestows a special status.
“When I spent time with Arnold in recent years,” Mickelson says, “I’d walk away feeling great. He had a way of doing that. Not just with me, but with everybody.”
Mickelson recalls being at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, in 1994, when Palmer played in his last U.S. Open. When Arnie missed the cut, he did all his media interviews, breaking down in tears several times. Then, hours later, he did something Mickelson will never forget.
“He went into the volunteers’ tent,” Mickelson remembers. “There were maybe 600 people in there and he stayed for two hours, signing autographs and talking to people, thanking them for what they had done for the tournament and for golf.
“He had this way about him, of looking people in the eye and immediately diffusing the awe.”
Mickelson learned from Palmer by example.
From 1999 to 2002, the annual Skins Game, not sanctioned by the PGA Tour but featuring top PGA players, had its run at Terra Lago in Indio. After one of those Thanksgiving weekend events involving Mickelson, an area sports columnist interviewed Mickelson, wrote his column, filed it to his newspaper, went out to his car, and saw Mickelson still signing autographs.
This is what the desert has inherited as the new face of its tournament. Mickelson may squirm, as most would, at addressing one’s own career status.
But in a Nov. 1 post by CBS SportsLine’s Kyle Porter, Mickelson’s status in the game of golf has been enhanced stratospherically.
“Mickelson,” Porter wrote, “is the most beloved golfer since Arnold Palmer.”
Mickelson responds with humility. “That’s real flattery,” he says. “I don’t know what to say. There can be no greater compliment.”
Maybe there can be. Porter’s top 10 of golf history is, in order: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, and Mickelson.
Of course, the Boy Scout image is not without its blemishes.
On the same May day that Foster was getting giddy about his new appointee, news was breaking that Mickelson might be involved in an insider-trading scandal. He received a stock tip from a friend named Billy Walters, a known Las Vegas gambler with whom Mickelson should not have been friendly. The stock tip turned into a $931,000 profit, which Mickelson ended up paying back with fees and interest (a total of $1,037,029.81) and he was cleared by the government of any wrongdoing.
It’s the sort of scandal that could dog a celebrity sports figure forever. Not so with Mickelson. At the time of the incident, his lawyer, Gregory Craig, said in a statement to the Golf Channel, “The SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] has completed its investigation and has concluded that Phil Mickelson engaged in no wrongdoing.” Were Mickelson a different kind of person, a good many investigative reporters would be licking their chops. With Mickelson, “no wrongdoing” was enough.
The reaction was also somewhat muted a few years ago when Mickelson got stirred up about California state taxes, hinting that they, in combination with increased federal taxes, were being assessed at such an outrageous rate that it might prompt him to move out of his home in Rancho Santa Fe and into a state that doesn’t impose a state income tax. A week later he did a mea culpa at Torrey Pines.
“Taxes are a personal matter,” he said then. “I had no business saying what I did in public.”
Few would skate through these things like Mickelson does, but then, few have accumulated the public relations equity that he has.
A national golf writer was going through a battle with cancer, one that he won. During his low time, the writer opened his mail and found a handwritten note of concern and encouragement from Mickelson.
When Hunter Mahan chunked a crucial chip shot near the end of his singles match in the Ryder Cup in 2010, a match that the U.S. team would lose, the media pressed Mahan afterward. Mickelson, sitting nearby on the same stage, jumped in, taking on reporters and taking the heat off Mahan. His message was clear. Mahan was his teammate and if you want to criticize him, criticize me , too.
Mickelson’s victory at the 2013 British Open at Muirfield is the stuff of lore, but it’s sometimes forgotten that he was in prime position to win two years earlier at Royal St. George. On the last day, Mickelson played a magical front nine, then faded to three back and a share of second place with Dustin Johnson. He capped his fade by sending his approach shot on No. 18 into the bleachers.
The winner was Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke. Clarke was 42, nearing the end of his career, and making his 20th attempt at the British Open title — to Europeans, the Holy Grail of the sport. As a second-place finisher, Mickelson was part of the awards ceremony, and as he stood with a smile as wide as some of his approach shots on the back nine, it was difficult to tell who won and who placed second.
The interpretation was easy. The joy for Clarke was sincere.
Several years earlier, Clarke lost his wife to breast cancer. In the 2006 Ryder Cup, where the opening ceremonies had husbands and wives marching out together, the Mickelsons handled Clarke’s widowed situation gently and perfectly. It didn’t matter that they were on opposite teams. They found him, each taking a hand, and marched out together. Three years later, when Amy Mickelson was diagnosed with breast cancer, among the first to call her husband was Clarke. Coincidentally, Mickelson’s most recent foray into big headlines was last October, at the Ryder Cup in Hazeltine, near Minneapolis. In recent matches, the U.S. team was not only being beaten by the Europeans on a regular basis, but was embarrassing itself with poor play and stunning fades on the final day. Mickelson had led a movement to reduce the power of the PGA in a captain’s selection and team strategy, and to increase power to the players. It worked — the U.S. won this time, convincingly.
The captain of the European team was Darren Clarke.
For those who dislike Mickelson, one reason always seems to be that they were huge fans of Woods, that Mickelson somehow threatened that, and that his sincere, almost sugar-sweet personality — so opposite of Woods’ — made him a phony. Tiger and Phil are certainly not bosom buddies, but Mickelson has always dealt with that as he recently dealt with his assessment of one of the keys to the 2016 Ryder Cup victory.
“What a great vice-captain Tiger was,” Mickelson says. “We were the host, so we had control of the tees. When we had a matchup with most of our teams playing longer hitting Europeans, Tiger had us move the tees back so nobody can get to the par 5s in two.
“There are little details in something like that that counted, and Tiger was right there, on top of them.”
One characterization is that Mickelson may be the strangest combination of meek-and-mild and crazy risk-taker that the game has ever seen. His incredible skills and contradictory flaws are mesmerizing. The player beloved as “Lefty,” is not even left-handed. All those autographs he signs, he does right-handed. Most of the pros just play the courses. Mickelson explores them. Another of his nicknames is “Phil the Thrill.”
He won one of his three Masters titles by hitting a crucial shot off a pile of pine needles, between two trees, and under some hanging branches, landing on the green 207 yards away. He birdied the hole. That one still makes most lists of greatest golf shots ever.
Mickelson has finished second in the U.S. Open six times. It is the only major he hasn’t won. In 2006 at Wingfoot, he merely needed a par on the 18th hole to win. But he hit his tee shot off a sponsor’s tent and into a garbage can. His free drop left him with several trees between him and the hole. Instead of pitching out safely, he tried to hit through the trees, but hit a limb and ended up losing the tournament to Geoff Oglivy. Afterward, he fessed up.
“I can’t believe I did that,” he said. “I am such an idiot.”
Most sports heroes do idiotic things. Few cop to them. That day, Mickelson lost a golf tournament and found a million new fans.
This is what he is bringing to the Coachella Valley on the PGA tour’s first stop of the year. CareerBuilder is a tournament that has lived and flourished through eras of Bob Hope and Arnold Palmer … and also spent years along the way on life support.
Now, its immediate image — and, perhaps, corresponding future — is in the hands of one of the most talented, quirky, popular, self-effacing, oft-criticized, confident, messed-up, mind-blowing shot-makers (and shot-missers) ever to play golf.
What’s not to like? January will be Phil Time in the desert.
There’s no doubt it will be a thrill.