Mickelson's best still to come

Phil Mickelson doesn't share the Claret Jug with just anybody. Amy Mickelson

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. -- Does Phil Mickelson give lessons?

"No," he said. "And if I did, my rate might be a little steep."

Reportedly, he gets half a million dollars for a corporate day of golf, schmooze, dinner and speech. That works out to something like $65,000 an hour. So a half-hour lesson would be, what, $25,000, with the media discount?

What did I care? I was quitting.

Me: Great. I'll expense it.


"OK. Come on down."

I did want a lesson, but not just on golf.

What's not to learn? Mickelson seems to have somehow cornered the market on happiness. He has a bucket of sunshine for a wife, three gorgeous kids, $48 million per year coming in (according to Forbes), 51 worldwide wins, five majors, a jet, a compound the size of Rhode Island, a clean arrest record, and an optimism that would floor Little Orphan Annie.

He met me at his house, which is not like your house.

His house is more like a Spanish village with Winged Foot attached. Outside his front door he has four chipping greens, a lavish putting green with every kind of putt you can think of, and a tee box where he can hit drivers up to 450 yards, usually in flip-flops. He might have the only house in America with its own greenkeeping staff.

He greets me in his golf cart, which is not like your golf cart.

His has a satellite dish on the roof and a TV in the front, so he can get 1,000 channels and XM radio. Gift from his wife, Amy. "This way I can watch football and still play," says Mickelson.

Time for the lesson.

Me: OK. First, I want to learn that over-the-head backward lob wedge shot you hit.

This is clearly not what he expected, but I'm paying, right?

So he taught me the over-the-head lob wedge shot. He set it up on the steep lip of a bunker, faced away from the green, and sailed it straight up over his head backward onto the green.

On the fifth try, after blading two over a fence, I did it. Pretty as you please.

Me: Cake. What else you got?

He trotted out his patented off-the-cement-cart-path shot (leaving a ding on his famous Ping lob wedge.) The high, soft chip. The chip and run. The impossibly sky-high bunker shot, the zip-ball trick, and the flip-the-club-backward special. He showed me everything but the hit-it-between-two-trees-207-yards-over-the-creek-at-Augusta-to-3-feet shot. "Make sure the ball actually fits between the trees," he advised.

Me: You have all these shots, and yet you missed the cut at the Masters this year and missed the cut at the Players. Is the arthritis back?

He laughed. "No, I feel great. I can't remember the last time I felt this good. It doesn't even feel like I've got the arthritis. And because of my diet, I've reduced my meds to one-third of what I had at first. I've lost 20-plus pounds."

And then he said something bizarre: "The next five years are going to be the best of my career."

Me: Let me get this straight. From age 43 to age 48, you're going to play the best golf of your life?

"I think so. I'm going to win a bunch of tournaments. I'm going to win at least one U.S. Open, maybe two. And I'm going to make the 2016 Olympic team. And really, I'd love to make the 2020 Olympic team. I'd be 50. How cool would that be?"

Is this man on crystal meth? He's playing awful and he's going to win not one but two U.S. Opens? The star-crossed soul who has finished second six times in the Open, the tournament that's become his own personal iron maiden, is going to just start knocking them off like carnival Kewpie dolls?

"It's possible. Look, remember when people were saying, 'When are you going to win a major?' And I kept saying, 'I don't want to win just one major. I want to win multiple majors.' And I did? So now people are saying, 'When are you going to win a U.S. Open?' and I'm saying, 'I want to win multiple U.S. Opens.'

"My body isn't beat up like a lot of guys. My swing isn't like Tiger's, or Jason Day's, Dustin Johnson's, even Hunter Mahan's. I don't have a really fast golf swing that has a lot of viciousness, a lot of fierceness, where the torque and power that's released is hard on the knees, the back. My swing is big and long and has a wide, wide arc. That doesn't put any pressure on my body ... I'm like a kicker in the NFL. I'm not beat up. I can keep playing at a high level for a long time."

I was about to ask him how he can play a "long time" if it never includes weekends when Amy comes out in a flowing red dress and wedge heels, carrying the Claret Jug, which she'd filled with ungodly good and who-knows-how-expensive red wine.

Yes. The original, 141-year-old Claret Jug, the one Mickelson won in July at Muirfield in the most confounding, out-of-nowhere victory of his career.

"Who wants to drink?" she asked.

Me: Me.

When you drink from the Claret Jug, you are literally drinking history. You are holding the jug with your fingers on the names of Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, and Arnold Palmer. You are putting your lips where dozens of champions have put theirs, from Sam Snead to John Daly.

OK ... better to not think about that.

"Coolest trophy in sports," Phil says.

It's so cool that on the private jet home, Mickelson's caddie of 22 years, Jim (Bones) Mackay, slept with it cradled in his arms.

It's so cool that anytime Mickelson plays a new course near home, he brings the Jug into the clubhouse and lets people take pictures with it for four hours.

I wondered aloud why we were drinking at 2 in the afternoon. They told me.

They had found out the day before that Amy is cancer-free at the five-year mark. Thus, the wine, sipped like victors. Then, as usual, they started canoodling and kissing and calling each other "love," which really gets old.

While they were busy, I did what any good reporter would do. I checked to see how much cash he had in his wallet.

Just over $5,000, mostly hundreds.

That's when Amy came out with a bag of snacks for my drive home. Hospitality of Aunt Bea. Body of Beyonce.

As I drove, I thought of the 24 years I've covered these three -- Mickelson, Amy and Bones. I thought of all the heartache of Amy's cancer and Phil's mom's cancer and all the major seconds and major thirds but no major firsts for all those years. And then I thought of all the joy that had come to them in the past 10 seasons -- the clean X-rays, the three Masters, the PGA, and the cherry on top of it all, the Muirfield stunner, the one Phil calls "the biggest achievement of my career."

That's when I realized what the lesson really was: That through the worst times and the best, the one thing that hadn't changed was their grace through disappointment, their belief in themselves, the way they looked it all in the eye with a smile, no matter what came.

And it hit me then that it was not sports so much that I was going to miss, it was people like them.

I had one last question, which I texted.

So how much do I owe you?

"You know my usual fee," he texted back. "But for you? Half."

Would you settle for $5,000 cash?