Commentary

Mickelson's family still believes

Updated: June 12, 2013, 7:05 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

ARDMORE, Pa. -- Phil Mickelson already had a life-shaping decision to make at the age of 11, so his old man sat him down to review his three options: football, baseball or golf. If Phil wanted to excel in one, he needed to reduce the time and energy devoted to the others.

He had been a right-handed quarterback who broke his arm winging the football and a right-handed pitcher who was struck with a thrown ball and a batted ball on back-to-back days, leaving him with a matching set of black eyes. The father, Phil Sr., took note of these occupational hazards, but he had a mature, headstrong kid on his hands, one quite capable of making his own call.

[+] EnlargeMickelson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson comes into Merion after a solid showing at the St. Jude Classic.

Phil Sr. was a Cold War fighter pilot used to meticulously analyzing and breaking down the challenges confronting him. In the early 1960s, when a Soviet Badger bomber was buzzing his F-8 and a carrier in the Sea of Japan, Mickelson engaged the Soviet tail gunner -- who was shining a light in his eye -- dropped his landing gear to shine a similar light on him and chased the Badger away.

So Phil Sr. was always a man with a plan, and here's what he laid out for his young son: Golf puts no premium on foot speed, and Phil Jr. was nobody's idea of a burner. The father was concerned about the high rate of injuries in football and pointed out that winning and losing in team sports is often determined by others.

"In golf," Phil Sr. told Phil Jr., "everything that happens is on you. There's nobody else to blame or to take the credit for your success."

Phil Jr. liked that. He also liked to hear his old man offer a counterpoint to his argument that the pros of golf might outweigh the cons of football and baseball. To provide some balance, the father reminded the son that many skilled golfers aspire to play on the PGA Tour and never get there.

"But the more I told him how difficult it was going to be," Phil Sr. recalled by phone, "the more determined he was that he was going to be able to do it."

The righty was going to play lefty, too, because he swung that way as an infant while facing his right-handed dad. Phil Jr. would grow up lobbing wedge shots over the lemon and tangerine trees in his San Diego backyard, landing his ball on a homemade green and dreaming of beating the game's legends at the U.S. Open.

And here he is all these years later, ready to turn 43 on Sunday and hoping against hope to celebrate his birthday by winning the national championship that has remained as elusive as it was in his backyard.

A card-carrying family man, Mickelson is spending his pre-Open time 2,800 miles away from the Brazilian rain forest that currently is Merion, practicing in the California sun as he eagerly awaits his daughter's eighth-grade graduation Wednesday. Mickelson was never going to miss Amanda's ceremony, even if it cost him a good night's sleep on the flight before his 7:11 a.m. ET tee time Thursday.

It was a smart move from a devoted father who was ready to walk out of his 1999 Open showdown with Payne Stewart at Pinehurst if his beeper told him his wife, Amy, was about to give birth to Amanda, their first child.

But Mickelson's time away from Merion doesn't represent a diminished commitment to the cause of finally winning a U.S. Open. He has placed second at the Open a record five times and, just like his father predicted, knows there's nobody to blame and credit for that failure and success other than the man in his locker-room mirror.

One of those five runner-up finishes will stay with Mickelson forever, or at least until he wins the Open.

"Phil's never one to dwell on the past, and he tries to move forward and think positively," said his brother, Tim, the golf coach at Arizona State. "But he had control over the Winged Foot situation [in 2006]. If he had one of those Opens to take back, he would play the last hole at Winged Foot all over again."

Off a tent, through the trees, into the sand, over the green -- Mickelson's closing double-bogey cost him a tournament that was all his with a simple par. He apologized to the fans, called himself "an idiot" and acknowledged he'd never felt such heartbreak on a golf course.

"I mean, countless hours practicing, dreaming of winning this tournament, came out here weeks and months in advance to get ready and had it right there in my hand, man," he said that day. "I just cannot believe I did that."

Mickelson has repeatedly said he wants this particular major badly; maybe he wants it too badly. He's won the Masters tournament three times and the PGA Championship once, and though he nearly stole the British in 2011, his game was never designed for links golf, meaning he has a built-in excuse if he never claims the claret jug.

Meaning his own national championship represents his last uphill fairway to climb.

So does he want it too much?

"That could be the case," his brother said by phone. "It's even tougher in an individual sport if you want something badly because you can't hide behind teammates. Maybe Phil has wanted it too much, and at other times maybe his preparation got in the way."

Yes, his preparation. Mickelson is famous for his intense, sometimes quirky methods of preparation. Tim recalled that during an Open practice round with his older brother at Torrey Pines five years ago, Phil surveyed the high rough and decided to remove his driver from his bag.

"And then Phil got sick that week," Tim said, "and he shows up Thursday and finds the rough is a lot shorter. He stuck with his game plan to hit 3-woods [for the first two rounds], and it backfired on him.

"But that's part of what makes Phil great; he prepares like nobody else. He goes way in advance, and it's not uncommon for his practice rounds to last eight, nine, even 10 hours when he goes in early. He'll spend an exorbitant amount of time saying, 'OK, when the pin's here, I want to miss here; when it's there, I want to miss there.' He'll end up letting a lot of groups go through, though not too many people are upset when they get to go through Phil Mickelson."

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Stan Honda/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson might never forget his meltdown at Winged Foot in 2006, but he still has chances to win a U.S. Open.

He's a Hall of Famer, after all, a winner of 41 PGA Tour events -- two more than Tom Watson and a dozen more than Lee Trevino -- and the best American player since Sam Snead to go 0-for-the-Open. A psychology major at Arizona State, Phil understands better than most the mental burdens of the chase.

He was hounded about his inability to win a major until he broke through at the Masters in 2004, two years after he lost to Tiger Woods at Augusta and said the movie "The Rookie" had inspired him to feel lucky just to be part of the game. Mickelson didn't just prove he could win multiple Grand Slam events; he proved at the 2010 Masters that Winged Foot hadn't floored him for good.

His father wasn't the least bit surprised. Long ago, Phil Jr., Tim and their sister, Tina, all heard the same lecture from Phil Sr. and his wife, Mary, about the irreplaceable value of an honest day's effort.

"We told them it didn't make any difference what you did in life, but how you did it," Phil Sr. said. "You could be a garbage collector -- and this isn't a put-down of that profession -- but why not try to be the best at it? That's why Phil tries hard from start to finish every week. You never see him give up or go in the tank."

So just as Phil Jr. didn't give up in Memphis on Sunday, when he nearly holed out from the fairway on the final hole at the St. Jude Classic, he won't give up at Merion. Mickelson has endured psoriatic arthritis, the near-loss of his wife and son, Evan, during the boy's traumatic delivery and the breast cancer battles waged by Amy and his mother.

Hardened by the struggle on and off the course, Mickelson won't quit if Merion proves kinder this week to Woods.

"I think he's got another six to eight chances at the Open. I think he can contend all the way up to age 50, 51," Tim said. "If there was a bet in Vegas on whether Phil would ever win the U.S. Open between now and his retirement, I would take that bet."

Tim would take that bet because he remembers his teenage brother needing only three tries to hit a blind shot over the roof of their childhood home and into their backyard cup. Phil Sr. would take that bet because he remembers Phil Jr. intentionally skipping a ball over a lake in a college tournament to escape trouble after his coach pleaded with him to chip out.

"Trust me," Mickelson told the coach before landing his water shot on the green.

Way back when, with his old man's help, young Phil Mickelson picked the sport that required blind faith in himself. He won four majors after fielding years of questions about why he hadn't won any, and now some wonder if golf's national championship is forever out of a 40-something's reach.

Nobody knows if Mickelson will finish his career none-and-done at the U.S. Open, but this much is already clear:

He's earned the benefit of the doubt.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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