Consider how he celebrated his 45th birthday Tuesday, not by blowing out candles but throwing cold water on the whispers and insinuations that he’s no longer a force on the pro scene.
“There’s no reason why I couldn’t play at a high level for a while. Each day, I feel like I’m getting better,” Mickelson said.
He had just played a solid practice round at Chambers Bay when Mickelson addressed the lingering scepticism about the state of his game. True, he hasn’t won since raising the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013, and it’s a matter of record that he had just one top 10 in 2014.
But when you find the words “optimistic” and “positive” in your pocket dictionary, that’s Mickelson’s face you see. The man oozes with confidence. He’s forever in possession of a half-full glass. Forget the string of pedestrian efforts in 2014 and thus far in 2015, Mickelson will subtly remind you that he was second in the American PGA last August and fourth at the Masters in April, which is to say, the man shows up when the lights are brightest and the stage grandest.
Oh, and did we also mention he’s the most resilient player of his generation?
“I’ve always been somebody, ever since I was a kid, who got motivated by failure, who worked harder because of failure,” Mickelson said. “Some people get discouraged by that and it almost pushes them away. For me, it’s been a motivator.” Clearly, the motivation for Mickelson when it comes to his national open is massive. Not only would a victory put him in a select group of icons — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods — who have won the career Grand Slam, but Mickelson has been so close to winning his national open that you could excuse him if he were bitterly disappointed.
Instead, he’s enthusiastically embracing his 25th chance as if it were his first. The heartache of past US Opens sits on Mickelson’s resume in different flavours. Helpless to stop Payne Stewart’s winning putt on the 72nd hole in 1999, he also couldn’t do anything about a juggernaut named Tiger Woods in 2002. In 2004, Mickelson botched a couple of closing holes, yet it was Retief Goosen’s composure down the stretch that prevailed by two, and in 2009 at Bethpage, Mickelson simply ran out of holes and couldn’t chase down Lucas Glover.
In each case, someone else won, but it’s hard to say that Mickelson didn’t lose in 2006 and 2013. The left hander will tell you that 2013 still stings, because he led through 54 holes and would have won had he shot 72 at Merion. He finished with a 74 and lost by one to Justin Rose.
“I feel I should have won that,” Lefty said. “I was playing well enough to win.” Yet it was the closing 74 at Winged Foot in 2006 that is the squandered chance many will associate with Mickelson. Had he hit the 18th fairway he would have won. Had he escaped trouble with his second, he would have likely been in a playoff. Instead, Mickelson drove it off a corporate tent left, then hit a tree with his second shot and wound up watching Geoff Ogilvy hoist the hardware.
Six second-place finishes, yes, but it’s not six layers of misery to suffocate his enthusiasm.
“That fact that I’ve come so close is actually a motivator for me,” Mickelson said. “It’s encouraging I’ve done well in this tournament.” Another drink from his half-full glass. It is the glory of Mickelson. In a game that can beat you up he bounces off the mat time and again.
With a smile, too, and when it’s accompanied by vintage Mickelson perspective and wit, you can only soak it in and shake your head. When asked about his ability to remain so competitive at the age of 45, Mickelson offered this: “I’ve always felt a long golf swing — a long, smooth, flowing swing — leads to a long career and a short, violent swing leads to a short career.” He would deny that it was a comment directed at anyone in particular, but it came with Lefty’s trademark Cheshire Cat smile. So it was easy to sit there and wonder if Mickelson had a guy named Woods — he of the “short, violent swing” — in his mind. Though he is five years younger, Woods has been battered and beaten health-wise, his issues ranging from a bad back to surgically-repaired Achilles and knee, to whatever damaged brainwaves are telling him he has to change so many things about his game.
The enormous shadow long cast by Woods, the one that often hid Mickelson’s great talents, is no longer present. Woods, approaching 40, isa shell of his once iconic self. But Mickelson is overflowing with positive energy, on top of his game.
You don’t think so? No worries. He does and he has enough confidence for the two of you.