Interview: A happy Phil Mickelson ahead of The Open

Almost any round of golf, so they say, provides both a prompt and indelible insight into the character and personalities of the participants. Even a few holes are invariably enough to arrive at a pretty accurate assessment of an individual.

One of the good guys: Phil Mickelson with his trademark smile. Picture: Getty

Take Phil Mickelson and his opening nine in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart this past week. It all added up to 33 – three under par – but was compiled in a way the game’s greatest-ever left-hander could have patented over the course of his highly successful career.

In no particular order, there was a three-putt bogey, a one-putt par, an eagle, a couple of routine pars, a “conventional” one-putt birdie on a par-4, a two-putt birdie on another par-4, another bogey via a bunker. Just to round things off, there was also a one-putt birdie on a par-5. Routine stuff really.

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And all involving the following: recklessness, waywardness, astonishing dexterity and touch, all-round brilliance and, not incidentally, kindness and generosity in the regular distribution of balls to small children. Throw in loyalty – Mickelson is surely the only high-profile pro never to have changed his caddie, his agent, or his wife – and we are closing in on a reasonably accurate snapshot of this fascinating individual.

Or are we?

“Probably,” says Mickelson, sporting that familiar grin.

Asked to expand, he does.

“The way I play probably reflects the way I am off the course.” Cue another grin.

No argument here. Ewen Murray of Sky Sports tells the story of watching Mickelson working on the range with his coach, Butch Harmon. Employing the easy, controlled swing he uses when hitting six-irons, the four-time major champion was “killing” the ball with his driver. “It was beautiful to watch,” says Murray.

At the end of the session and as his charge left to tee-up alongside the long-hitting Dustin Johnson, Harmon told Mickelson not to get involved in a driving contest with his playing partner. “Keep using that same swing,” he said.

“Aw Butch,” came the reply. “I think we both know that isn’t going to happen.”

No shock there, of course. Mickelson has always been true to his inherent risk-taking character, both on and off the course.

“I tend to be aggressive in investments,” he reveals. “I like to play hard. When Amy and I go on trips or spend time with the kids, we do just that. We love to go skiing. And we were just in Montana, where we went white-water rafting. I’ve tried archery and trap shooting. I’ve done a bungee-jump. But I think I’ll leave sky diving until my kids are out of college. So yes, I’d say my approach to life pretty closely mirrors my attitude on the course. I enjoy life and I love new challenges.”

Mention of his wife, Amy, and children, Amanda, Sophia and Evan, is guaranteed to bring a smile to the ultimate family man’s face. Mickelson’s devotion to all four is legendary. Only last month he flew through the night from their California home to the first round of the US Open, immediately after attending Amanda’s graduation from eighth grade.

“My commitment to my family has definitely affected my career,” he concedes. “But only in a positive way. They have made my life more fulfilling and enjoyable. But it’s a balance. I love to do two things in life: spending time with my family and competing. And those are the two things I enjoy most. So I’m a pretty happy guy. Which is why I smile a lot. The vast majority of my time is spent doing the things I love the most.”

Perhaps the most significant on-course confrontations of Mickelson’s professional life have been with Tiger Woods. It’s safe to assume that his tally of majors would have at least doubled in the absence of his fellow Californian. Three Masters titles and one USPGA Championship is a relatively paltry return for one so prodigiously gifted. But that is not how the San Diego native sees it.

“I’m thankful constantly that my career coincided with Tiger’s,” he claims. “My timing has been wonderful. Nobody has benefited more from Tiger being in the game than I have.

“I’ve been able to participate in some of the largest purses in the history of the game. Our increased television ratings have created a wealth of corporate opportunities off the course. My earnings have been higher than I could ever have hoped when I turned professional. Plus, his presence validates the 40-plus wins I’ve had. I’ve achieved it all competing against the best player, or one of the two best players the game has ever seen.”

One event Mickelson has not added to his impressive list of victories is the Open Championship. Runner-up two years ago behind Darren Clarke and tied third in 2004, one shot out of the play-off between Ernie Els and Todd Hamilton, remain his only close-run things in 18 attempts. It is a perplexing record of mediocrity. In the major where shot-making ability is most rewarded, one of the game’s premier shot-makers has come up short.

“I am surprised and a bit frustrated at my lack of success over here,” he admits. “For the last eight or nine years, I haven’t had a problem getting the ball on the ground and playing the course effectively. Where I have struggled is on the greens: I have not putted well. Actually, for the last four or five years, I haven’t putted well at all, certainly not as well as I have this year. I’m curious to see how I do at Muirfield, just because I am putting so much better.

“On fescue greens the ball will wobble if you don’t put a pure strike on it. But if you roll it great, it will hold its line and you can make them. I think I have that worked out, but I won’t know for sure until I get to the Open. But it has been evident here at Castle Stuart: I’ve putted well on these fescue greens.”

Where Mickelson has been far more prolific is at home. So far, he has accumulated 41 victories (one as an amateur) and amassed the extraordinary sum of $71,062,682. And he is not one who sees the challenges on the PGA Tour as a sea of sameness – quite the opposite, actually.

“I think the tour is doing a great job of having a variety of set-ups,” he asserts, not quite bristling at the very suggestion – but close. “Some weeks the course is soft, some weeks it is firm. Some weeks the fairways are tight, some weeks they are wide. Some weeks the rough is an inch or two long; some weeks it is four or five. I think there is a great mixture, which gives players an opportunity to pick which events are best suited for them to play well. There are 40-something events on the PGA Tour, but you can only play 20-25 effectively. So that makes sense.

“For example, Hilton Head is short and tight and you don’t have to hit drivers. Then there is Torrey Pines, where you have to hit a succession of big drives off the tee. And there are great courses like Riviera and Pebble Beach. I just think there is great variety. So I wouldn’t change any of that.”

He isn’t about to change the way he plays either. “Phil the Thrill” is here to stay, although he does make a single annual gesture in mitigation of his perennial propensity for on-course impetuousness. Once a year, his faithful caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay (the son of a Scottish father, by the way) is allowed a “veto”. In other words, he gets to choose the next shot.

“One year at New Orleans I drove it through a fairway and wanted to skip the next shot off the water and on to the green,” says Mickelson, the grin returning. “Bones vetoed that one. Which was good. I eventually laid-up short of the pond and made par.

“At Muirfield in 2002, I was in a bunker left of the 14th fairway. The lie was really awkward and I was on my knees with a 6-iron in my hands. He wanted to veto but I told him it was only good in the United States. I ended up making a 15-foot putt for double bogey, so I should have listened.”

Amidst it all, however, the now 43-year-old Mickelson has never lost the enthusiasm he had for the game as a child. On his first-ever 18-hole round with his father, the young Phil refused to play the last hole, “because then it will be over”.

“I still love going to the golf course and spending time there,” he confirms. “I think most people enjoy doing that too. But things need to change. The problem is not golf taking too long. I want the golf experience to be enhanced to the point where people want to spend all day at the course.

“I want courses to have par-3 holes, courses kids can play and keep score. I want facilities kids can enjoy. I want them exposed to chipping and putting and bunkers. But I also want a video room and internet inside the clubhouse so they can take a break and do other things. Then I want them playing football or soccer on the driving range. But the bottom line is I don’t want them to leave until it is dark.

“What I don’t want is people going to play golf, then rushing round. We own courses in Phoenix where we have camp counsellors so that kids are safe and supervised and have someone to play with and learn from. The overall experience is they never want to leave, which is the way I was as a kid. I never wanted to leave.”

Another place he has every intention of retaining is his spot in the US Ryder Cup side. Nine times Mickelson has represented his country in the biennial battle with the Europeans. Certainly, he has no imminent wish to put himself forward for the non-playing captaincy that will surely be his whenever he indicates willingness.

“I’m starting to play some of my best golf and I can only see the Ryder Cup as a player right now,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of years left to compete on the Ryder Cup. So I can’t get my head past that. In fact, I’ve made the last 18 teams [Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup]. I’m playing some of my best golf. I’m in the best shape of my life, stronger and fitter than I have ever been. I’m as long off the tee as I have ever been. There’s no reason why I can’t keep playing.”

Go for it Phil. Oh sorry, he already has. Every time, too.