Phil (The Thrill) Mickelson keeps on pace in the Safeway

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — He once had a caddy tend the flagstick on a shot 75 yards from the cup (no, it didn’t go in). He won $400,000 by betting on the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXX. He whacked a ball around a putting green and took a 10 in this year’s U.S. Open.

Phil Mickelson is a chance-taker, a self-believer, a fabulous putter and, contrary to the norm of lefthanders playing righthanded, notably Ben Hogan and Johnny Miller, a righthander who plays lefthanded.

And at age 48, in other words two years away from the Champions Tour (newspeak for the Seniors), Phil is in a tie for second halfway through the Safeway Open at Silverado Country Club.

You want some perspective? Mickelson, at 10-under-par 134 after Friday’s round, is one in front of Kevin Tway, whose father, Bob, was beaten by Phil 27 years ago in the 1991 Tucson Telcom Open.

That’s when Mickelson, a 20-year-old junior at Arizona State at the time, became the last amateur to win a PGA Tour tournament.

So if Phil is wonderfully unpredictable and charmingly arrogant, there are reasons. As did his rivals, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, Mickelson won the U.S. Amateur and NCAA championship. Phil was on the cover of Golf Digest before he turned pro, with the headline, “How good is this kid?”

More than a quarter-century later, we know the answer: Good enough to win five majors; good enough to be on 12 Ryder Cup teams; good enough earlier this year at age 47 to win a tournament, the WGC in Mexico; good enough to be three shots behind Brandt Snedeker’s 131 after 36 holes in this Safeway.

Phil the Thrill. “The real boss of the (winning 2016) Ryder Cup team,” tweeted Ted Bishop, former president of the PGA of America. “Phil presided over the press conference like a hawk surveying his prey.”

A father so interested in his kids in 2017 he skipped the U.S. Open, the only major of the four he never won, finishing runner-up six times, to attend the graduation of his eldest daughter Amanda from her San Diego-area high school.

A man who paid off a gambling debt with $1 million earned on an illegal insider tip, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, but according to his attorneys was not charged and was innocent of any wrongdoing — but agreed to repay the $1 million.

Mickelson was a star a few years in front of Tiger, and you wonder what Phil might have done had Woods not come along to win the tournaments and steal the attention. Not until the 2004 Masters did Mickelson, then 33, get that first major.

Now, he’s trying to get a second tournament in this calendar year but a first tournament of the 2018-19 Tour season, which starts with the Safeway. After flying from France and last week’s Ryder Cup, Mickelson isn’t sure what to make of his golf.

“Yeah, I don’t know what to say,” Phil observed. “I’m as surprised as anybody that I’m playing well. I’ve hit a lot of good shots. I’m not surprised I’m putting well. I’ve been putting well week in and week out.

“I’m just surprised I’m hitting this many good shots. I’m surprised I haven’t hit some huge drives off line. The ones that were in the rough are very solidly hit. But I’m surprised I haven’t hit any out of bounds, to be honest.”

It’s hard to smack one OB at Silverado, although a few fairways do border roads or residences. So Mickelson, who can be cocky, is giving us a bit of self-deprecation.

Not that Phil deserves to be criticized. He’s the only 2018 Ryder Cup player in the Safeway, and along with Fred Couples, Snedeker and two-time Safeway winner Brendan Steele he gives the event the recognizable names need to draw fans and Golf Channel viewers.

“I love what I do,” said Mickelson, “but now, as opposed to playing the tournaments you’re expected to play in, whatever, I’m going to play the events I like.”

One of those is a $9 million winner-take-all, pay-per-view match between Phil and Tiger over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“I probably won’t play much until then” said Mickelson. “You know at 48 it’s not a smart thing to do. It doesn’t come easy anymore.”

But as his play so far in the Safeway indicates, for Phil Mickelson it comes when needed.

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