Friday, April 14, 2023

Review: Phil (2022)

By Alan Shipnuck

An interesting character, this Phil Mickelson.

He can be funny, smart, mysterious, petty, giving, loyal, cocky and generous - all in the same week, or so it seems. But Mickelson is always exciting, always competitive, and always fun. 

That combines to make him a good subject for a biography. Alan Shipnuck has put the pieces together as best as he could in his book, "Phil." The result is a book that puts all of those traits on display. Shipmuck may not be sure how the pieces come together - as if anyone, including Mickelson, could figure that out. But the publication, like its subject, is rarely boring.

Golf fans have been hearing about Mickelson for about 30 years. He was really good at the sport since his teen years, and was very successful in college. Phil's level of talent was first on display on a big stage in 1991, when he won a professional event as an amateur. No one does that - at least since then. 

Mickelson's attitude was on display during a top amateur tournament in that era. Shipnuck recounts how early in a match-play event, his opponent had a long, long putt for par while Mickelson had a much shorter putt for birdie. Phil conceded the par, and then confidently rolled in the birdie putt. The opponent was destroyed mentally and went down meekly in the match. No one does that, period.

Mickelson eventually turned pro in 1992 and had some success on the tour. The stumbling block usually came in the four major championships, which proved elusive. Part of the problem was that a fellow named Tiger Woods turned up, and he was often in the way. It was interesting to ponder what a life without Tiger might have been like for Mickelson in terms of success in that era. Then again, no one was staging any telethons to help Phil out financially. 

Mickelson also was a gambler on the course. Sometimes the safe way is the best way when a golfer is faced with trouble, but Mickelson preferred the thrill of taking a risk. That quality, and an accompanying issue with keeping his drives somewhere near the fairway - sometimes came to bite him. The title "the best player never to win a major" was almost invented for Phil in that era, but he lost it forever in 2004 when he won the Masters - with an in-character birdie putt on the final hole, no less. Drama frequently has followed him like galleries do.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mickelson's best quality on the golf course proved to be durability. The major titles eventually started piling up, reaching six as of 2023. He became the oldest player to win a title in 2022 when he captured the PGA title. Sure, Woods wasn't as competitive as he was used to be in that time, thanks to a life that Shakespeare couldn't do justice to chronicle. But you still have to play against those that are out there, and Mickelson has done that. He surprised almost everyone in the 2023 Masters with a second-place finish at the age of 52. Who knows what might happen in the next few years?

The results are interesting, of course, but how Mickelson did it is even more interesting. Shipnuck talked to a ton of people for the book, and he wisely starts out by asking many of them "What's your best Phil Mickelson story?" There are more than 10 pages of the answers, and they are all great. Throughout the book we read about a man never met an autograph he wouldn't give, never met a business deal he wouldn't ponder, and never saw a bet that he didn't think he could win. Shipnuck does explore the gambling side of Mickelson, even though it's tough to get a grasp on that shadowy subject. He's danced to the edge of problems a few times, it seems, but survived the encounter. We'll see how his luck holds in that sense.

The book received some publicity when it amplified some comments Mickelson made about the Saudi golf league. He was quoted as saying he hoped it would be leverage to improve the PGA tour, with Shipnuck publishing the comments even before the book was published. However, Mickelson ended up taking nine figures of money to jump to the LIV tour. At this point, the full story remains to be written. 

At one point, some thought Mickelson was going to be "The Next Nicklaus," as in the next more-than-great player. Instead, he turned out to be "The Next Palmer" - someone who developed a huge fanbase with a swashbuckling style and a personality to match.  "Phil" tells that story well in a book that will consumed quickly and easily for those have an interest in the subject. 

Four stars

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