Golfers aren't always known for their personalities or their ability to thrill a crowd. Jack Nicklaus was excellent for an astonishing period of time, but his golf was always precise and calculated. Tiger Woods at his best can be an unbelievable golf force, but the entertainment value in Tiger has always been simply watching excellence.
In contrast, there's Phil Mickelson. Phil takes the shots that nobody else takes (but every spectator wishes to see). He isn't a quiet and driven golfer; his personality and his family are out there for everybody to see. He wasn't a natural and he wasn't born with the natural advantage of a country club membership; his game was honed on public courses.
Phil is the duffer's pro. He, more than US Open qualifiers, movies like Tin Cup and Happy Gilmore or the story of Bobby Jones dominating golf as an amateur, is a symbol of how democratic golf is. Play enough, work at it, never let the world change your attitude, and maybe. That's Phil. That's how he plays, that's how we watch him.
Tiger was always in top shape, stronger than golfers had been before, focused, almost humorless. Phil, like so many of us, has gone from young to doughy and has had to shed weight. We can only really see that in sports with golfers and maybe the occasional baseball player, but it speaks to Phil's connection with the world of people who aren't professional athletes.
Watch golf on television, and it doesn't look like the game you see on your local course. Professional golfers don't joke around often. They keep quiet, focused like electron microscopes on a game designed to be hard. There are, of course, exceptions, but it's clear that most golfers take their work as seriously as everybody else, even though their work is recreation for millions.
Mickelson isn't like that. Watching Phil is like watching any good natured hobby golfer on any course in the world, except that Phil happens to be really, really good. He smiles. He complains about parts of his game letting him down loudly enough for microphones to pick it up. He kids around when he can, but not at all in a clownish fashion.
Oh, and the risks. Phil and risk management are sworn enemies. This is a player who will try any shot in any situation regardless of the potential consequences for failure. Sure, this has memorably cost him more than one major over his career, but when it works, it's unforgettable. Besides, what's a better story: the countless golfers (including every last one of the “all-time list”) who have lost because a few putts here and there didn't fall, or Phil, who loses tournaments in a fashion that would make Icarus laugh at his hubris?
The risk-taking “choker” narrative died long ago, and now that he's added his fifth major trophy at the Open Championship, it almost seems silly that we ever thought that way. Laying up is for people who believe in laying up. Phil doesn't believe in laying up, and rather than let that cost him trophies, he's made it into a unique legacy among great golfers.
The Greats in sports are usually larger than life. Tiger, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, these aren't the kind of people you find on the local links. They're legends. They're true professionals, so great at the sport that everybody calling it a “game” is on another planet.
Phil Mickelson is different. He is the local golfer, represented on the all-time leaderboard, with our fluctuating weight, our imperfect health, our crazy shot selection. If most people who play golf woke up one morning to find they had elite golf abilities, they would likely play more like Phil than Tiger. Our favorite phrase would immediately become “hey watch this.” Can't say that before laying up into the fairway like you're supposed to. “Watch this” means “I'm hitting this shot off a tree root and who cares where it goes, because if it works I'm the man.”
No other greats played like that. No trainer, no swing coach, no caddie on the planet would advise anyone to play like that. Yet, deep in everyone's mind, that's how they would play if golf balls were free and we could theoretically hit The Shot.
A decade ago, Mickelson's story was that he would try to hit those shots and lose as a consequence. It was to be his downfall. Now it's his legacy. Eventually I imagine those crazy shots will be named after Phil Mickelson. “Just go at it” is going to turn into “play it like Phil,” or maybe just “go Lefty for this one.”
The supposed “greats' table” now has to make way for a movie character come to life, real-life redemption for the big screen Ty Webbs, Roy McAvoys, and Happy Gilmores of the world. Room for the hobby golfer done good. The every-man in a sport defined by country club members and virtuoso performances.
Phil Mickelson has done it, and everyone who plays golf for fun should go right at one hole, the next round we play, in Phil's honor.