Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

U.S. Open: Phil Mickelson, whether his swing holds up or not, has found his perfect balance

ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson flew all night, San Diego to Philadelphia, before his early-morning tee time in the first round of the U.S. Open so he could go to his daughter’s eighth grade-graduation Wednesday.

Not her high school or college graduation, or a daughter’s wedding, mind you. Mickelson played with red eyes, twice caught one-hour naps during the morning, once during a long rain delay. He turned 18 holes of golf into an 18-hour mini-ordeal. But he also shot a 67 to lead the Open.

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What is going on here? What does it mean to Mickelson? And what does it tell us about the fascinating connection between managing your life and managing your career that is a central part of our evaluation of all of the world’s best players? Once, asked his highest achievement, Jack Nicklaus did not reply, “18 majors.” He said, “I’m proudest of how I managed my life.”

Mickelson’s daughter Amanda told him it was all right if he didn’t come to her event, even though she was a speaker at it. She understood. After all, 14 years ago, Phil carried a beeper with him all day on the final Sunday at Pinehurst as he dueled with Payne Stewart for the U.S. Open title, vowing to leave the course in mid-round if necessary to join his wife during childbirth. The sports nation debated whether that was wonderful or nuts or both.

This intertwining of the U.S. Open (which always ends on Father’s Day), Mickelson’s devotion to his family and his uniquely star-crossed relationship with his national championship is one of the most tangled knots in sports. He has finished second in the Open a record five times. His pride is that he’s come so close so often, and his biggest frustration is that he has never won it when he surely should have closed it out once, maybe twice. Unless he wins one, he’ll go down as one of the Open’s best players and worst squanderers.

“If I never get it, it will be a bit heartbreaking for me,” he said.

Will Mickelson end up winning this Open, on a Merion course he loves, at least in part because he distracted himself from the pressure he often feels entering this event by doing a generous good deed for his family, which everyone in golf knows he adores and dotes on?

Or will Mickelson, who turns 43 on Sunday, run out of gas on the weekend, not necessarily because of his flight, but with it nonetheless in the back of his mind — a sort of combination clear conscience and built-in excuse.

Mickelson illustrates how players can make radical mid-course changes in their attitude toward life management. For many years, Mickelson lived on the edge, sometimes acting as if he thought he was invincible, often, by his own admission, taking too much risk on and off the course. But he has gradually learned and matured in many ways.

For example, he knows how much he ties himself in knots if he exposes himself to the Open course itself on Wednesday with all the hype and “Go, Phil, this is your year” cheers. So, he always practices at a different course. This year, he took it to the extreme, or reduced it to absurdity. He left Merion on Monday and practiced in California: better weather, better practice facilities and Amanda’s speech “with a Ron Burgundy quote in it.” And all of it 3,000 miles from Open pressure, Open questions. If you can’t sleep the night before the Open, why not fly all night and be noble, too?

Even hackers see parallels between the way they manage their game and the way they manage their lives. That’s one reason it’s common to say you seldom learn so much so quickly about people as by playing golf with them. Confidence, honesty, courtesy, resilience, humor, strategic thinking, self knowledge and a dozen other aspects of personality and character — or the abject lack of them — make their presence felt when it’s least expected.

For great pros, the link between self-management, life strategy and maximizing their careers is so tight as to be indivisible. Nicklaus said, “Over a career, you only have so much juice.”

So, he figured out where to spend that valuable energy, that grinding focus, often playing very few tournaments in a year. But he also flew back home in his private plane in the midst of events to see a ballgame or school play involving one of his five children. He felt the balance in his life helped him play with a clear mind and, perhaps, a clean conscience.

Golf has debated the life decisions, and their impact of careers, of many greats. Greg Norman’s Great White Shark empire distracted from his golf; but perhaps business and branding was actually his greatest skill. Sergio Garcia’s constant petty contretemps, self-created, always reinforce his sense of persecution. Some flirt, such as Rory McIlroy, with the celebrity life, with the impact on his golf as yet undetermined.

At this Open, however, the obvious contrast is between Mickelson, who has drawn ever closer to his wife and three children as he has matured and won his four majors, and Tiger Woods, who’s No. 1 in the world again but is no longer considered one of golf’s great life managers. Five years ago, he was considered the best. Can Woods remake a life, almost from the foundation? Can he manage himself in a way that lets him believe he deserves to win on stages like this and that will permit his golf to flourish once again?

At Merion this week, gifted golfers will have to gauge the breezes, read the greens, pick lines of attack and select clubs. But those won’t be their most important choices. Those small decisions shape only one shot at a time.

In the way they treat their families, where they spend their time and energy, how their values find expression in their actions, we see the choices that define their lives and, in turn, their entire careers.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

 
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