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Phil Mickelson: The Modern Day Arnold Palmer

I have been a fan of Phil Mickelson since he came onto the PGA tour and I have an interest in the history of golf.

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson’s Reputation

As professional golfer Phil Mickelson will turn 50 this year, I thought it was appropriate to reflect back on his golf career. As a longtime fan, I can truly say that following him has never been dull. Maybe it's been exciting, frustrating, exhilarating, and sometimes agonizing, but never dull.

Phil burst onto the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour in 1991 by winning a tournament (Northern Telecom Open) while he was still an amateur. That, in combination with his outstanding amateur career at Arizona State, caused Phil to attract attention almost immediately from the time he entered the PGA Tour.

Phil started winning tournaments shortly after turning professional in 1992, but early on, he was unable to win any of golf’s four major tournaments (Masters, US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship). A few years later, in 1996, Tiger Woods came on the Tour and quickly become the dominant player. Phil played through the Tiger Woods era, and although he was not able to win a major tournament during this period, he probably was the closest thing to Tiger's main rival. Phil was the only golfer on tour whose gallery was anywhere close in size to the gallery that followed Tiger.

After playing in Tiger's shadow for a number of years, Phil began to win some major tournaments. First the Masters in 2004, then the PGA Championship in 2005, and then the Masters again in 2006. He would later win another Masters Tournament and British Open. As Phil started to win some majors, and Tiger’s personal issues and injuries took him away from golf, Phil’s popularity seemed to grow even more.

The reason for Tiger Woods's popularity is rather apparent. He was able to set himself apart from the rest by performing at a very high level over a long period of time. The reason for Phil’s popularity is a little more complicated. Phil has certainly been a very successful golfer, with five major tournament wins and a total of 44 PGA tour victories. But there is something more intangible that has caused Phil to become more popular than other golfers with similar records.

A reporter recently asked Phil what the difference was between a great shot and a smart shot. His response was that “a great shot is when you pull it off and a smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.” I think that is the essence of Phil Mickelson.

I believe that it is this “go for broke” mentality that has caused him to stand out on tour and attracted fans to him. Phil's gambler attitude has made for great theatre. His win at the British Open was sealed by hitting the Par 5 17th green in two, a green that was rarely reached in two during the tournament. His amazing second shot at the 13th hole at the 2010 Masters led to an eagle and a victory. But he has also had many heartbreaks. None were more memorable than the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, where he had a one shot lead on the 18th hole and proceeded to make a double bogey and lose by a shot. On the last hole, just needing a par to win, he choose to hit a driver off the tee and went far to the left, then tried to hit a heroic second shot that hit a tree.

Phil has given golf many memorable moments both good and bad. With Phil, you can never be comfortable when it appears he is in a position to win, but conversely, you can never count him out when the situation appears to be hopeless.

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer

Phil’s popularity may also stem from his devotion to his fan base. In a 2013 Golf Channel article by Joe Posnanski, entitled “Mickelson elicits a Range of Emotions,” it states that “Every single day on the golf course, he signs autographs for at least 20 minutes. He puts it into his schedule. It rarely stops at 20 minutes. He tips big, he smiles to the crowd, he talks with kids as he walks by and, if you ever want to hear gushing compliments, just walk up to a marshal, any marshal, and ask what they think of Phil Mickelson.”

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An extremely popular golfer with a “go for broke” mentality. Does that remind you of a great golfer in the past? As some have compared the careers of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, I believe there are many similarities in the careers of Phil Mickelson and Arnold Palmer. The caption at the beginning of Arnold Palmer's web page states that "Arnie’s go for broke style of golf bolstered a legion of fans, coined by the press as “Arnolds Army.”

A September 2016 Golfweek Article by Adam Schupak in reference to Arnold Palmer states "As a measure of his popularity, Palmer, like Elvis Presley before him, was known simply as "The King." But in a life bursting from the seams with success, Palmer never lost his common touch. He was a man of the people, willing to sign every autograph, shake every hand, and tried to look every person in his gallery in the eye."

Two Legends

There are comparisons in their golfing careers as well. Fair or not, golfers seem to be measured most by their performances in the major tournaments. Arnold won seven major tournaments to Phil’s five. Both won three of the four majors and both had their greatest successes at the Masters. Palmer won four of his seven majors at the Masters, Phil won three of his five at Augusta.

Both have had their greatest heartbreaks at the US Open. The US Open is the one major that Phil has not won, but he has been close many times, including the 2006 US Open noted above. Although Palmer did win the 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills, he had the famous collapse in the 1966 Open at the Olympic Club, giving up a seven shot lead on the back nine to Billy Casper. He also lost an 18-hole playoff with a young Jack Nicklaus at the 1962 US Open at Oakmont, which was played in front of a very pro-Palmer crowd.

Palmer had 10 second-place finishes in the Major Tournaments and Mickelson had 11 second-place finishes. Palmer had a total of 17 first or second-place finishes in the majors and Mickelson had 16. Again, it was the US Open where they both had the most second-place finishes with Palmer having four and Mickelson having six. In their careers, the tournaments that they didn’t win may have been as memorable as the ones they did win.

Off the golf course, they both shared a love for flying. Both had their own planes that they would fly to tournaments. Mickelson famously flew from Pennsylvania back to San Diego during the 2016 US Open to attend his daughter's graduation and flew back just in time for his tee time.

It is probably unfair to compare any golfer to Arnold Palmer as the timing of his rise to greatness coincided with the advent of television. His popularity was instrumental in elevating the game of golf to what it is today. However, Phil Mickelson has carved out a legacy of his own on the PGA Tour, using the same formula of great golf: playing with a fearless approach and a tremendous devotion to his fans.

Of course, Mickelson’s career is not over and maybe he isn’t finished providing the golf world with great moments. It will probably be many years before we know how his career will be viewed in history. But his career has certainly been unique and in many ways similar to the great Arnold Palmer.

Now if he can just come up with a drink to name himself after.

Arnold Palmer and Hale Irwin

Arnold Palmer and Hale Irwin


Arleen Vazquez on September 08, 2020:

Very interesting and insightful

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