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  • Alistair Tait

Why Phil's worth his weight in gold

Phil Mickelson wasn’t going to speak to me. I could feel it deep down in my water. He’d just shot 64. Everybody wanted to talk to Phil. No way was he going to spare me the few minutes I needed from him.

I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did: I found out first hand what makes the oldest major champion in the history of golf the drawing card he is.

It was the 2002 World Golf Championship at Mount Juliet in Ireland. The topic of golf making it back into the Olympic Games for the first time since 1904 was a hot issue. I’d spoken to big name representatives from most countries and needed a marquee American for my story. I knew I wasn’t going to get Tiger Woods on my own – no one gets Woods on their own – and settled on Mickelson.

Mickelson spoke to Sky Sports, he did Irish national television, the local TV network, two radio broadcasters and then huddled with the written press. He’d probably conducted over half an hour’s worth of media commitments. My three minutes looked doomed.

I politely asked Phil if he’d mind answering a few questions about golf and the Olympic Games. I was prepared for him to give me the cold shoulder. Not only did he smile warmly at me, he answered the questions I posed to him thoughtfully and fully.

I thanked him and began heading for the media centre. Amy Mickelson was waiting for her husband. I heard Phil say:

“I’m just going to sign a few autographs and I’ll meet you in the clubhouse.”

He turned to the throng of Irish urchins and began signing autographs.

I walked back to the media centre, opened my laptop, stuck my headphones into my tape recorder and transcribed the conversation I’d had with Mickelson. It was good stuff. I was a very happy man indeed.

Forty five minutes after arriving at the media centre I headed back down to the recording area near the 18th green. Mickelson was still standing there patiently signing autographs.

I was flabbergasted. Phil’s determination to make as many kids as possible happy, creating fans for life, was in stark contrast to the way Colin Montgomerie stomped off the 18th green. He marched straight past the kids without even an acknowledgement.

Mickelson is on record as saying he learned from Arnold Palmer to sign as many autographs as possible after hearing how Palmer would go out of his way to accommodate fans. The new PGA champion, now a six-time major winner, has certainly lived up to Palmer’s ideal as man of the people. That much was obvious from the way he interacted with fans through four rounds of the 103rd PGA Championship. No wonder he’s the biggest drawing card in American golf outside Woods.

What’s not to love about a guy who’ll stand and sign until he’s made every kid happy? Remember, this is the man who learned to sign his name in Chinese so he could accommodate as many kids as possible during a WGC event in China.

And yet there are times when the image of the man I’ve just portrayed breaks down. His public trashing of Tom Watson in the aftermath of the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles was unforgiveable. That’s a conversation that needed to take place mano a mano behind closed doors, not in the full glare of media spotlight.

Stopping his ball from rolling off Shinnecock’s 13th green during the 2018 US Open was a mystifying act from someone who holds the tenets of this game so dearly to his heart. It should have resulted in disqualification rather than a two-shot penalty.

Turning up in Saudi Arabia earlier this year for a seven-figure cheque did him no favours with fans who want golf to have no business whatsoever with the repressive Saudi regime.

Yet these blips do not deter from the man who has just made history. The final round at Kiawah proved he has a bond with fans almost as deep as that which Palmer formed.

Mickelson’s historic win comes a close second to Woods winning the 2019 Masters. The difference being Woods has the utmost respect of his fans, while Phil feels nothing but love.

Just what you’d expect for a man who has time for everyone.

Returning to the Saudis, if he was allegedly worth $100 million to the proposed super league, what’s he worth now?

How about his weight in gold?

#JustSaying: “After you shoot 75, you don’t really want to go pose with a poster child and spend two hours greeting people who have paid $500 to attend a function. But Arnie does it time after time and I’ve never heard him complain.” Winnie Palmer

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