Donald Trump has picked a good time to arrive in Britain since the heat is currently on another controversial American.
Phil Mickelson is in danger of becoming the golfer they love to hate. Terms like “despicable”, “atrocious” and “appalling” have been employed to describe him in recent weeks. But as with Trump, it’s not as straightforward as that. Mickelson might even dismiss it as “fake news’’.
Because, judging by the reaction when he was introduced by former Scotland rugby international Andy Nicol on the first tee of the Scottish Open in Gullane yesterday, there’s still few more popular golfers around. Perhaps only Ricky Fowler could rival Mickelson for high-profile appeal on this patch of sun-fried land in East Lothian.
Mickelson went on to shoot level-par 70 in the first round. It was a mere footnote compared to everything else going on as he seeks to restore a reputation sinking more readily than his putts of late.
The wider public appear to have little truck with him – he was applauded as readily as anyone else yesterday. There was, though, little for anyone to get excited about when it came to Mickelson’s game. It was steady, at best. He seemed to acknowledge this when he spoke with reporters afterwards, conducting what seemed like a belated charm offensive after a month which he described as “rough”. He said he wasn’t prepared to talk about his round. But he was “happy to answer” other questions. Mickelson knew “other questions” were all anyone had in mind.
Even stopping to talk was a step forward in relations between Mickelson and a press corps who have viewed his recent on-course behaviour with distaste.
He irritated reporters anew by appearing to skip his media requirements prior to the start of this week’s Rolex Series event. He explained it was because he rushed off to Carnoustie for some practice ahead of next week’s Open. He also hopped across to Paris to do some (very) early prep ahead of the Ryder Cup later this year.
This perceived snub exacerbated an already dire situation. Mickelson recently committed one of the cardinal sins. He treated golf’s rulebook with contempt. More accurately, he disrespected rule 14-5 when hitting a moving ball after a poor putt at the 13th hole at last month’s US Open.
He compounded this grave offence when raising his hands in mock triumph after holing a putt at the same hole the following day. Then last week, at the Greenbriar Classic, he appeared to stamp down a tuft of grass in front of his ball. He issued something of a mea culpa yesterday while engaging with these controversies for the first time in detail.
“I made a big mistake and you know, I wish I could take it back, but I can’t,” he said, in reference to his US Open misdemeanour. “It wasn’t a great moment. I wish I could take it back, but there’s not much I can do about it now other than just try to act a little better.”
Everyone Loves Phil. End of story. This used to be the case, especially here in these parts, where he was a very popular champion at Muirfield five years ago. He was asked if he felt it was necessary to win the galleries back.
“You know, you have to be accountable for yourself,” he said. “I do a lot of dumb stuff, right. I have these moments where I am, like in a cloud, if you will,” he added. “I’m not really sure what I’m doing or I’m just kind of going through the motions and not really aware at the moment. I’ve done that a bunch in my career.”
He felt the love in Carnoustie earlier this week, he said, and he felt it again yesterday. Even reports of a one-off, winner-takes-all multi-million-pound contest against Tiger Woods, possibly in Las Vegas, hasn’t altered the galleries’ opinion. It might be viewed as a bit gauche, especially in this corner of East Lothian.
According to Mickelson, the match with his new pal Woods is a goer. Patrick Reed is among those to suggest they play for their own money, to heighten the stakes. This suggestion didn’t find favour with Mickelson, unsurprisingly. “I would hope for a sponsor,” he said, flashing the pearly smile that was once the calling card of Fun-Time Phil.