December 1, 2009

My Golfer of the Year: Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson may not have won the most tournaments, he didn't win a major, and he wasn't the PGA's Player of the Year, but in my mind, he's my Golfer of the Year.

Here's why:

His 2009 started with two solid victories, first at at Riviera in the Northern Trust Open, then at the WGC/CA Championship at the tough Doral Golf Resort.

Then, the bottom fell out in his personal life. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, to make matters worse, so was his mother. That's quite a load to carry, and it's one that no amount of money or fame can make lighter. Sure, Amy and his mother Mary were afforded the best medical treatment that money can buy. Thing is, even that does not bring complete certainty.

Cancer is a wily, hateful enemy, and if you have never had to experience caring for a loved one going through the throes of treatment for the dreaded disease, let's just say that if you were my worst enemy I still would not wish it on you. Phil not only had to do that for his wife, which is one of the hardest things a man can do in a marriage, he also had to do so with his mother before Amy had completely finished her own treatments. That's like having to face Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson in a boxing ring at the same time.

Somehow, Phil carried on, and despite the pressures of being the World's #2 golfer and the expectations that comes with it, he managed to find respite on the golf course. He took some much-needed family time away from the game, and shortly after his return, he was a factor in the U.S. Open.

Despite falling to Lucas Glover, Phil's Herculean effort in New York at Bethpage should not be overlooked. Like I said above, cancer is a hateful enemy, and if a loved one has it, their cancer invades your psyche and never completely goes away. Its symptoms are sudden metallic tastes of fear, and those are followed by cold shudders when thoughts of the worst coming to pass cross your mind. In that U.S. Open, Phil gave us all a wonderful example of what it means to be a man -- someone who can manage his emotions and still do a great job in his work. In my view, that is a victory unto itself that's far, far larger than the trophy that Glover lifted that rainy weekend.

In the middle of it all, Phil was still Phil, which meant that he still had time to say hello to his fans, to sign a kid's autograph, and to still be one of the greatest philanthropists the modern game has seen. Mickelson does not get enough credit for those things, especially in a time when uber-rich players seem to walk to and from a course as though they were bottled up in a Thermos, seemingly miles away from the fans that paid their good money in the depths of The Great Recession to see them play. Phil is often compared to Arnold Palmer in that regard, and fairly so: The King is still revered by golf fans everywhere for being one of the friendliest people to trod between the ropes. Phil is a lot like him, and it seems like he always has time to say hi to an adoring ten year old, or high five a little girl excited to see him as he strides towards the next tee. The game needs more Phils and it certainly needs fewer Ice Princesses who act as though they couldn't be bothered.

Phil wasn't done with his 2009 after the US Open, however. He wasn't satisifed with his game, and to fix it, he worked with putting guru Dave Stockton. A few mechanical and mental changes later, fix it Phil did, and he came roaring out like a man possessed. Seemingly every stroke he took with his flat-stick sent the ball to the bottom, and with that came confidence on the greens that Phil said he hadn't had since he was a kid. Suddenly with his new-found putting prowess, the rest of Phil's game blossomed and his swashbuckling style from tee-to-green allowed him to play offense on the golf course rather than trying to defensively get each and every approach shot within spitting distance of the cup.

Folks, changing your game that drastically for the better is not an easy thing, not even for one of the best golfers playing the game today. It takes a bit of humility, a lot of hunger and a truckload of practice and preserverance to make it work. Phil Mickelson did it, and it paid in spades. He upstaged FedEx Cup winner Tiger Woods by dominating the field over the weekend for an easy Tour Championship win. At the President's Cup in San Francisco, Phil was lights out. And to end his 2009, Phil won again, this time in Shanghai at HSBC Champions/WGC tournament again featuring most all of the top-ranked players in the game today.

In toto, that means that Phil Mickelson started 2009 well, somehow not only managed to help his family when it need it most, and still nearly won his country's championship. Then, he made a smart move and made himself a better player, one that NBC's Johnny Miller says is the best in the world today, with all due respect to Tiger Woods. The whole way, he never lost himself and never forgot who he was and why he is adored by so many of his fans.

Taken as a whole, that's why Phil Mickelson is the Old Man Par Player of the Year in a runaway victory.


  1. Great post on an extraordinary athlete.

    After his personal life came crashing down on him, I thought we would have to wait until next year to see what he could do. But he came back not with vengeance, that wouldn't be Phil, but with a new determination.

    I will never understand the Phil-haters. In my experience, he has always been friendly and a gentle-man. He also seems to have a very appealing ability to laugh at himself.

  2. Charles, if Tiger had an average fantastic year, I may agree with you. And, though he did not win a major, counting Australia, he had seven W's, three 2nd's and fifteen top tens out of eighteen tourneys.

    You make a great case for Phil and lots of people made a great case for Tiger winning it in 2008. But, golf is a game of numbers and Phil picked 2009 to have a very, very good year and overcoming his 'distractions' made it a great year. Still not good enough, in my mind, to beat Tiger THIS year.

  3. Agree w/OEG but Phil had a helluva year. Hope 2010 is ever better and delivers some memorable competition w/Tiger and the field.

  4. Vince,

    You can look strictly at the numbers or you can do as I do, look at a year as a whole, with everything that went on during it.

    Woods had to overcome a knee injury. OK, he did that quite well as we all know. But that was before the fact, Woods didn't start his season until he felt he was "ready."

    Mickelson on the other hand had his year interrupted, not once but twice, and still managed to not only bounce back but also to improve his game at the same time. That's makes him my player of the year, not my guy with the best stats of the year.


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