Yesterday, after the 13th hole at Augusta, I did something I've never done before: I cheered for Phil Mickelson.
I never liked Phil. He always seemed like a blue-blood choke artist to me. I preferred Tiger, with his no-nonsense ball-breaking style, or someone with a fun personality like Ernie Els. But not Phil. In my head, he was the weak, privileged dandy, the all-talent no-heart country club cream puff. And for a long time, his play seemed to confirm that opinion. He lost majors on disastrous shots, and kept finishing second or third under intense Sunday pressure (8 times, actually, before his 2004 Augusta breakthrough). At best, I saw him as an heir to Greg Norman.
When he finally won the Masters, it annoyed me. He'd broken the fourth wall. He no longer inhabited the character I'd constructed for him. I was so attached to that old storyline that when some radio personality suggested he'd taken mood-enhancing drugs in order to fight off the final-round nerves (with zero evidence to back it up), I was on board. Unfortunately for me, Phil went on to win the PGA in 2005, and then another green jacket in 2006.
Yesterday, I finally realized what should have been obvious all along: Phil is not weak. He's nuts. He's a gambler, a maverick, an all-around fucking loon. One shot in particular led to my epiphany. The situation: 13th hole, par 5, and Phil's leading the tournament by a stroke. His tee shot finds the pine straw near the woods, and is semi-obstructed. Of Mickelson's many talents on a golf course, his greatest is his short game. He's an absolute genius from inside 100 yards, and his touch is unrivaled by anyone alive. Needless to say, the smart move was to lay up and try to go up and down for a birdie. If he had to settle for par, no big deal; again, he was leading. On Sunday. At Augusta.
Furthermore, the green is guarded by a creek that snakes just in front of the putting surface. The hole on Sunday was perilously close to the embankment running down to the water, and hitting from the woods to that pin placement was a formal invitation to disaster. Phil's actual quote when he spoke to his caddie Jim Mackay (who tried to talk him out of the shot, like a good bagman should) is amazing:
"Listen, there's an opening in the trees and it's just a 6-iron," Mickelson said. "All I have to do is execute. It's not like I have to hit a big hook or big cut. I have to hit a 6-iron on a big ol' green."
"There's an opening in the trees." I love it. So he talked himself into the shot like a true gambler, and pulled out the six. He took a vicious hack, tracked the ball with his maniacal wide-eyed stare, and watched it land about five feet past the danger zone. He came that close to utter disaster. Instead, the brilliant shot set him up with a short eagle putt, which he missed. But that's a footnote; he got the easy birdie, and he went on to win the Masters handily.
After that shot, one of the announcers, either Lundquist or North, offered some pretty telling analysis. Speaking of Mackay, they said "he knows Phil would rather take a shot he's happy about and fail than take the safe shot and succeed."
That's when it hit me: those near misses early in his career weren't because he was a choker. They happened for the same reason he succeeded yesterday: he's a nut. He's a demented madman. He always, always, always takes a crazy chance. He seems to live for the thrill of a big risk on a bigger stage. And very often, he fails. Golf is typically a game of caution. You win by playing consistent, hitting the fairways, getting hot with the putter, and avoiding big mistakes.
Phil does everything except the last. He won't avoid a big mistake, because that would mean avoiding risk. (Ironically, he's sponsored by KPMG, an auditing and tax advisory firm whose mission statement includes the phrase "working closely with clients, helping them to mitigate risk." Can you imagine Phil working at KPMG? He'd definitely be the accountant who took huge liberties with tax returns...ever shoot a gun or wear camouflage? Take the military credit! Your kids had their friends over for a sleepover? Claim the extra dependents! With Phil at the helm, you'd either get a huge fucking return, or get audited and spend 15 years in jail.)
Phil's not about to avoid risk. I was going to compare him to a poker player, but the truth is that Phil would stink at poker. Great poker players have to be masters of strategy, but there's no real talent involved. Golf suits Phil's mentality perfectly (to a tee, you might say); he has the natural physical and mental gifts to take those ill-advised chances and sometimes succeed.
When he fails, he fails big. We've seen his hangdog look when that happens. He'll trudge down the fairway, eyes looking a little frantic, a little dazed, like an itinerant gambler who just got called out on a huge bluff and lost way more than he ever intended to risk. The failures have cost him multiple majors. But the fact that he's had so many chances to live or die by his guts speaks to an incredible, undaunted talent; the Jean Van de Veldes of the world only get to screw up once. Phil lives to fight another day. And when he succeeds, he does it on his own terms.
His own wild, lunatic terms. So yes, he could have laid up on the 13th yesterday. He might have managed the exact same score on that hole, even. And he definitely could have won the tournament. But he wouldn't have won as Phil Mickelson. Phil Mickelson goes for the green in two. Every time. If he's not taking the enormous risk, he's not himself. And why would he ever change? At the end of the day, he's just playing a game, and the creek ain't nothing but water.