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The World's Favourite Leftie

Phil Mickelson has always been an enigmatic entertainer, writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Jul 16, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


Vivid memories of Phil Mickelson’s first visit to these islands, were revived on and off the Castle Stuart links last weekend.  While the world’s favourite leftie sealed the Scottish Open with an exquisite pitch from off the green at the first tie hole of a play-off with Branden Grace, the presence of Andrew Coltart in the role of TV pundit offered a further reminder of 1991.

That was the Walker Cup at Portmarnock where Mickelson was the undoubted star of a talented American side. Irish golfing purists still talk of the stunning flop-shot he played with a sandwedge off a bare lie behind the 18th green to within two feet of the hole.  And it was an occasion when the public at large learned another side to this sweet-smiling American.

When describing a particularly wayward drive into rough on the ninth during a 4 and 3 singles win over Coltart on the opening day, Mickelson told an ESPN interviewer: "That's not a place I wanted to be.  The Irish women are not that attractive."  In other words, the opportunity of getting a close view of female spectators at the fairway ropes, wouldn't compensate for being buried in rough.

Remarkably, it led to something of a diplomatic incident, with irate phone calls to the Irish Consulate in New York.  They, in turn, got in touch with the headquarters of the USGA in Far Hills, New Jersey, demanding an apology.  Which Mickelson was only too happy to provide, saying contritely: "I'm sorry.  It was meant in jest."

His mother, Mary, later dismissed it to me as a storm in a teacup. "Amy (Mickelson’s wife) is Irish,” she said.  “Her maiden name was McBride.  So you see, it was all a misunderstanding."

Five years later, as an established professional competing in the old, Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews, Mickelson expressed serious offence at the extravagant behaviour of Jarmo Sandelin. Indeed he was moved to complain to his Swedish opponent: "You should show me some respect and don't behave like that. This is supposed to be a friendly game."  Mickelson later added: "I think these competitions should be played in good sportsmanship." Quite so.

He would certainly have got no argument on that latter point from one of the Scottish players on that occasion. Coltart still retained bitter memories of Portmarnock ‘91 when he was prompted to complain of his singles opponent: "He's an arrogant so-and-so. There's no place for that sort of behaviour in an event like this. He was trying to take the mickey out of me."

Coltart's tormentor was, of course, none other than the bold Mickelson who, four up playing the ninth, turned to the crowd and proceeded to make fun of the Scot's refusal to concede an 18-inch putt for a half in par. As Coltart explained: "I was trying desperately to make something happen and I've seen Seve Ballesteros miss putts of that distance."  Either way, Sandelin's exuberance - aiming his putter at the hole like a rifle after sinking yet another long putt - was decidedly innocent by comparison.

Diplomacy has never been Mickelson’s strong suit.  We remember public utterances about Tiger Woods and his “inferior” golf equipment.  And there was the famous occasion at Augusta National, early in the week of the 2003 US Masters.

A bold scribe risked personal embarrassment by insisting that Mickelson predict who would be the next left-hander to emulate Bob Charles as the winner of a Major championship.  When the player was assured that the questioner wasn’t being facetious, he eventually said: “I’m going to leave that one unanswered. I think we all know the answer to that.”    Five days later, Canada’s Mike Weir donned the green jacket.

Yet for all his faults, he remains one of the most popular figures in sport.  And with good reason.  In fact he proved he still has few peers as an entertainer when, after three-putting the 72nd last Sunday with the title within his grasp, he had the resilience and brilliance to birdie the same hole in the play-off.

Which brought to mind the words of the late Furman Bisher, one-time columnist of the Atlanta Journal and a proud left-handed golfer. With reference to the children of Benjamin lining up against the children of Israel, Bisher could quote the 16th verse from chapter 20 of the Book of Judges: "Among all this people there were 700 chosen men left-handed; every one could sling stones at a hair-breadth and not miss."

- Dermot Gilleece

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