Why we root for Phil Mickelson

I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing there were a lot of smiles across America on Sunday morning. It’s always great to see a golf legend do something he’s never done before, but even more heartening when it’s someone who most of us relate to.

Golf fans have lived and agonized with Phil Mickelson for two decades, and to see him come through at the Open Championship was a moment we won’t ever forget. Mickelson hugged his longtime caddy, shook hands with some officials and then received a minute-long group hug from his lovely family after it was all over.

It was reminiscent of the embrace he shared with wife Amy after the 2010 Masters. Anyone with a heart was fighting back tears at that time, and I’m guessing there were a few more wet cheeks this year as well.

Why do we care so much? Mickelson is a wildly successful career athlete who’s won a lot more than most – and is rich beyond ordinary contemplation. He’s also made controversial comments at certain times, generating scorn from observers as a spoiled elitist who’s out-of-touch.

But perhaps it’s Mickelson’s blunt candor that endears him to so many. Phil’s reached the height of his profession, yet we’re still able to relate to him. On his walk to the 18th tee after making what must be considered the victory sealing birdie on Sunday, for example, Mickelson was still acknowledging the British fans, slapping hands and fist bumping a good many of them.

Here’s a man who was about to ascend to incredible heights, yet appeared to be soaking it in, all the same. And appreciating that others were along for the ride, too.

It was more than a moment. It was revealing.

We love Phil because we see ourselves in him. On the occasions that he’s fallen short (and unfortunately, there have been many), we’ve grieved with him. We’ve felt that sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs when Mickelson’s come close and lost. We’ve been hard on ourselves in just the same way he has – and that’s how we relate.

Phil isn’t Tiger Woods. Tiger routinely offers a long list of external reasons something went wrong. Phil blames himself. After last month’s runner-up finish in the U.S. Open (his sixth, by the way), he admitted that the loss really hurt and it would take time to get over it.

That’s something we don’t hear a whole lot from professional athletes, a “human side” that lets us in, for a brief moment, to what it’s like to fail in front of hundreds of millions.

Phil’s losses draw an audience. We “average-folks” are allowed to suffer in anonymity. Empathy isn’t often earned – or deserved – yet somehow this wealthy-guy golfer gets it.

Mickelson famously said “I am such an idiot” after blowing the lead on the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It’s what we were all thinking at the time – but it was also something that most of us, if we were truly being honest, would have said in his place.

No, Phil, you’re not an idiot. You weren’t then – and now that you’ve finally captured golf’s oldest major championship, we all celebrate with you.

Now go get another for all of us.


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