Philophilia

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By Eli Saslow
Sunday, July 1, 2007

LAST SUMMER, I TOOK A WEEK OFF FROM WORK AND FLEW 1,500 MILES TO BURROW INTO THE COUCH IN MY PARENTS' LIVING ROOM. Like a man entering a tornado shelter, I stockpiled snacks, pillows and blankets on the floor next to me. For seven hours each day, I refused to move.

My vacation had been organized around a single activity: watching, without interruption or distraction, Phil Mickelson play in the 2006 U.S. Open. Each day Mickelson played, I woke up nervous. I took hundreds of imaginary golf swings. I declined any invitation -- a hike in the Rocky Mountains? Dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant?-- that took place more than 15 feet from the television.

It didn't matter to me that I was violating one of the primary tenets of my profession by obsessing over Mickelson. I am a sportswriter, and sportswriters do not worship athletes. We analyze their performance. We scrutinize their behavior. We investigate their transgressions. Under no circumstances do we take time off from work and spend 30 hours rapt in front of a television shouting, praying and throwing pillows like an obsessed adolescent because a millionaire golfer shanked a shot at an exclusive country club in New York.

After becoming a sportswriter, I'd scrubbed dozens of Denver Broncos stickers off the wall of my boyhood bedroom and given away my Syracuse basketball season tickets. In pursuit of journalistic objectivity, I'd renounced my emotional connection to Andre Agassi, John Elway and Dikembe Mutombo. But, somehow, I couldn't stop rooting for Mickelson. He was all I had left. That's why, for the U.S. Open, I flew as far as I could from my office to watch every move Mickelson made. Not as a sportswriter but as a sports fan.

Through 71 holes, it was one of the best vacations I've ever had. When Mickelson walked to the 18th and final hole of the tournament on Sunday afternoon with a secure lead, I stood up to applaud him. To my delight, Tiger Woods, Mickelson's nemesis and therefore mine, had failed spectacularly and missed the weekend cut. If Mickelson made a routine par on the final hole, he would win a third consecutive major tournament and legitimize himself as Woods's equal. Only one problem: Mickelson doesn't believe in routine.

A conservative player would have started the difficult, par-four 18th hole by choosing a club that yielded control instead of distance -- maybe a lofted 3-wood or even a 5-wood. Instead, I watched Mickelson reach into his bag and pull out his erratic, enormous driver. I averted my eyes, sensing what would happen next. Mickelson teed the ball up high and hammered it so far left that television cameras struggled to find it. I slammed my elbow into the back of the couch and buried my head in a pillow.

Pacing in my parents' living room, I imagined a scenario in which Mickelson could recover from his wayward drive and win. If he unadventurously chipped the ball back into the fairway, I thought, he could save a par. At worst, I figured Mickelson would make bogey and force a playoff. In that case, I would just delay my flight back to Washington to watch.

Golf commentators rank Mickelson's next decision as one of the most incomprehensible in the sport's history. With his ball buried in eight inches of overgrown grass, Mickelson took aim at the green 200 yards away. He tried the type of shot that only works in movies like "Happy Gilmore": under a low-hanging branch, over the clubhouse and through a maze of trees. Mickelson barely made contact, and his shot traveled 25 yards. He spiraled to a double bogey and lost the tournament.

On the 18th green, Mickelson knelt to the ground. He ground his teeth and pulled his hat over his eyes. Alone on the grass, he bowed his chin against his chest and hugged his putter. His face looked as pale as his yellow-collared shirt.

Keeled over on a carpet in front of the television, I looked even worse.

I'VE MET PHIL MICKELSON JUST ONCE, ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON SEVEN YEARS AGO, after he played his final round in a tournament held 20 minutes from my house in Littleton, Colo. I was a senior in high school at the apex of my obsession with sports. I bused tables at a barbecue restaurant three nights each week to pay for Broncos tickets, and I had accepted admission to Syracuse University at least partly because I liked its basketball team. Golf had never interested me, but my younger brother, Alec, had free tickets. He said he would give me one if I drove.

We spent the afternoon following the two tournament leaders, Mickelson and Ernie Els. I had always dismissed golf as boring, but Mickelson played with enough reckless abandon to thrill even the most extreme golf neophyte. He gambled for brilliance on every shot, prudence be damned. The result -- be it a dead-straight, 350-yard drive or a slicing disaster deep into the trees -- always stunned the gallery.


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