A ‘Different’ San Diego’s Phil Mickelson wins the PGA TOUR Championship

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Phil Mickelson at the 2007 Players Championship (Photo from 'Minds-Eye' via Flickr)

Phil Mickelson at the 2007 Players Championship (Photo from 'Minds-Eye' via Flickr)

I remember interviewing one of San Diego county’s favorite son’s, Phil Mickelson, about 14 or 15 years ago. He had won the Mercedes Championships held at La Costa Resort & Spa the year before, and had recently gotten engaged to his now wife Amy.

As was tradition, I was interviewing the past champion for the souvenir program/coffee table book. As he slouched in the chair and gave non-responsive, grunting, one word answers, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this the same young man with the ‘golly, gee, I love playing in San Diego’ persona?”

I’ve interviewed many sports celebrities, and always thought I had a gift of getting them to open up, but had never run into a more difficult interview. It got so bad, that I finally politely ended the interview. It was either that or unprofessionally bitch-slapping him for being such a punk (a move that would have invariably had very negative career implications for old Paulie).

I must say, that experience stayed with me over the years and affected my opinion of the man. That’s why, when I viewed the close-up of Mickelson on the 17th green at Sunday’s PGA Tour Championship, I was very affected.

As he gazed off into the distance while waiting for his playing partner to putt out, ‘Lefty’ seemed, for a few moments, truly lost in his thoughts; and if you looked really closely, there was mist in his eyes. The ‘kid’ from San Diego had changed. He was no longer the brass, cocky young man I had dealt with almost 15 years ago.

Now I saw a man who had been humbled and maybe now appreciated his life and his place in it. While only he knows what thoughts were passing through at that moment, clearly the perspective on his life has changed.

As most of the free world knows, his wife Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, followed by his mother. In this writer’s opinion, it was Amy who was really responsible for a lot of Mickelson’s metamorphosis. She brought the humility and substance that rounded off the corners. She made it possible for the family to travel together whenever possible (a private jet and household help didn’t hurt). And it was she who brought forth the Mickelson daughters, all a spitting image of their mom.

But I think it was her illness that made the biggest difference. Phil missed several tournaments to be with Amy during her treatments and there was never a doubt that it was something he had to, and wanted to do. Upon his return to the PGA TOUR, he struggled to find his form. He faced up to it, though and that’s why Sunday’s victory and the final few holes leading up to it seemed to bring a unique peace to Phil. NBC golf commentator, Johnny Miller, apparently also saw the difference when he ran into Phil on the course. Miller noticed a different air about him, even after he posted a quadruple bogey in the first round.

Afterward, Mickelson couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.  After all, he hadn’t contended anywhere since the U.S. Open, so to win The Tour Championship by three strokes in such a definite fashion had to be surreal. “I like the way today went,” said Mickelson, “I was two back of him (Tiger Woods), I beat him by three, he gets the $10 million check and I get $1 million.” Mickelson was joking of course; he actually received $1.35 million for winning the tournament and an additional $3 million for finishing second in the FedEx Cup to Woods. But at that moment, he was on top of the world..

In addition to the attitude adjustment, Mickelson’s turnaround came after a suggestion from his caddie, Jim “Bones” MacKay, that he consult two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton, a man many consider the world’s foremost putting guru.

Stockton happened to be here in San Diego and the two worked together for two days a couple of weeks ago. Stockton basically told him the opposite of what Mickelson had been hearing for a long time, that he presses his hands too far forward when he putts. Stockton told him it was the best way to putt. “Once he said that, I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I’ve always believed that.’ So I went right back to it and it’s been a night-and-day difference for me.”

So now Mickelson can look forward to the 2010 season with Amy, and his mother both seeming to be in the clear health-wise. “I’m very proud of my wife and my mom on the fight that they’ve been through, and we’ve been fortunate in the long term. We’re in good shape,” he said.

And Phil Mickelson seems to be in good shape as well. And not just his golf game…

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