Growing up in the ‘90s, a kid had to make certain choices and live and die by those. Blur or Oasis was one. Sega or Nintendo was another. And for most Irish kids at least, Liverpool or Manchester United was vitally important. And in most cases, it wasn’t enough to favour one slightly over the other, you had to be all in.
Since you ask, it was Oasis, Sega and Liverpool for me, and true to form, I detested Blur, would swear blind that Sonic the Hedgehog was a million times better than Super Mario, and took almost as much pleasure out of a Man United defeat as I took from a Liverpool win, but as the decade drew to a close, my interest in golf was rekindled as the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson rivalry began in earnest.
And yeah, as you probably guessed, I was a Tiger guy.
Despite being a junior member at my local club, I didn’t have the requisite patience for meaningful golf and stepped away from the game as my teenage years began. Then when the phenom broke onto the scene, breaking down cultural barriers, and captured the ’97 Masters in such dominant fashion, I was hooked again.
And though David Duval and Vijay Singh came and briefly challenged Woods’ throne, even then you got the sense that it would be Phil who would provide the most consistent opposition. And I hated Mickelson for it.
As I’ve grown – literally and metaphorically – I’ve come to appreciate that Blur had their moments, that Mario Kart might be the most enjoyable two-player game ever, and that Eric Cantona’s unique blend of genius and insanity helped make the Premier League the most exciting league in the world. Similarly, I grew to appreciate that Phil’s swashbuckling style of play and incredible powers of recovery made him box-office material, even if he was so often the bridesmaid but seldom the bride.
In many ways, he was to Tiger what Jimmy White was to Stephen Hendry. Seemingly equally capable but lacking the composure and mental toughness when the chips were down. Though I was a big fan of the Whirlwind, I must admit, and though my appreciation for Mickelson’s talents grew with my maturity, I could never bring myself to actually like or root for the guy.
Even as recently as last year, on the cusp of history by becoming the oldest major champion of all-time, I was firmly behind Louis Oosthuizen, even though the South African has let me down on so many occasions when I’ve had a bet on him to win. For the record, I had no money on the line last May so I wasn’t rooting against Mickelson for financial reasons.
No, in actual fact, I’ve long suspected that Mickelson’s good guy persona was a fraud. That his long autograph-signing sessions were less about giving the fans what they want and more about him getting the credit for signing them all. The same goes for his $100 bill for everybody he comes in contact with.
I know this comes across a touch hypocritical seeing as Tiger would often refuse to sign autographs and was a notorious cheapskate despite being one of the highest paid athletes on the planet, but I always appreciated that that was just Tiger being Tiger. Far from desirable character traits, but they were genuine at least, and as Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian detail in their superb biography Tiger Woods, as does Tom Callahan in His Father’s Son, Earl Woods has a lot to answer for when it comes to the shortcomings of Tiger Woods the man, even if he is heavily responsible for Tiger Woods the golfer.
In recent years, as Phil the player has become less relevant – I’m still expecting to wake up and find that the 2021 PGA Championship was just a bad dream – I found Mickelson’s attention seeking antics hard to stomach. He actually reminded me of the mother in the Keeping up with the Kardashians series – I didn’t watch it but my ex did so I’ve seen enough in passing to feel reasonably comfortable with commenting and also reasonably confident in the knowledge that few readers will be able to contradict anything about it – who always appeared desperate to squeeze into a camera shot even though it was her daughters that the audience were interested in.
There was the weight-loss and topless pictures posted to social media, there was the dress shirt playing attire, him dancing and doing the worm in a commercial for some product or other, his coffee thermos strategically placed next to his ball when putting, the aviator shades, the calves, all of this had the stench of mid-life crisis. If he was an average Joe Soap, he’d be buying a sportscar and flashing cheesy grins at 20-somethings as he drives by with the top down.
And then there were the “Phireside with Phil” videos where he took the opportunity to regale us with tales where he is the hero of every story. To be honest, I found it nauseating. I always do when somebody’s ego has grown out of control.
In spite of all this, even I found Mickelson’s egotistical self-indulgence of late hard to believe. The greed is off the charts, and whilst I think he fully deserves to be suspended (or even expelled) from the PGA Tour and to lose his sponsors, I think any suggestion that he’s learned his lesson is way off the mark. His apology – which read nothing like an apology – is evidence of this for me.
Now that the mask has slipped and irreparable damage has been done to Mickelson’s reputation among the golfing fraternity and perhaps to his legacy within the game, what comes next for Phil?
Few professional athletes have undergone the public shaming that Tiger Woods did, but he’s come out the other side and even ardent critics have been forced to admit that he has grown as a person.
Can Phil Mickelson do the same? Tiger Woods cheated on his wife – repeatedly – and as disdainful as that may be, it’s really no business of anybody’s besides Tiger and ex-wife. Phil’s infidelities were to the game of golf itself and his bedfellows are among the most despicable on the planet.
I’m not so sure that’ll be as easily forgiven.