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Phil Mickelson: family man, man of people ... and never boring

SportsColumnGolfPhil MickelsonU.S. Open (golf)Payne StewartInsider Trading
Phil Mickelson is nothing if not interesting, whether winning golf tournaments or losing with reckless play
Mickelson puts family first, tinkers with his game unnecessarily and it all adds to his appeal

The most interesting man in the world may not be that guy in the TV beer ads. It may be Phil Mickelson.

Even though he is instantly identifiable in the world of sports merely as "Phil," he is certainly not just plain Phil.

There is nothing plain about Mickelson.

He is a walking, living, breathing puzzle. He is among the greatest golfers in the world. He has proven that by winning 42 tour events, including five major titles. This is his 24th U.S. Open and he is already in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

All that, plus much more, makes him the belle of the ball here this week at Pinehurst No. 2. It is the U.S. Open and he has never won one. With other golfers, that makes them underachievers or chokers. With Phil, it only amps up the attraction.

He has finished second six times in the U.S. Open, including last year at Merion, Pa. It was 15 years ago, right here, when Mickelson's first child was about to be born and winner Payne Stewart so memorably grabbed him by the face on the 18th green and told him that was much bigger than any golf tournament.

Justin Rose is the defending champion, but Phil is here and the curiosity about him never wanes.

He is Phil, the family man.

In 2009, he missed a good portion of the season to tend to his mother and his wife, both battling breast cancer. Of course, he still won three tournaments and $5.3 million.

Last year at Merion, he flew home the day before the tournament began so he wouldn't miss his daughter's graduation from eighth grade — the same daughter about to be born when Stewart took Mickelson's face in his hands. He flew right back to Merion, shot 67 on Thursday, led the first three rounds and fell two shots shy of Rose.

He is Phil, the tinkerer.

Tuesday, he told the gathered media here that he had changed his putting approach — for the U.S. Open! — and would go to the claw grip on the club with his bottom hand.

"I've won majors with two drivers, with one driver, with no drivers," he said. "I've done some crazy stuff, but one of the dumbest things I've done — which actually never came back to bite me — was in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. I changed irons after the first round." He also finished second that year.

He is Phil, the over-thinker.

Asked Tuesday if, with so many of the story lines centered on him, he ever allowed his mind to wander to holding that trophy on Sunday night, Mickelson said: "I try not to, because I don't want to get ahead of myself. But it's only natural that I'm going to. Occasionally, I catch myself, but I really try not to. . . . When I jump ahead [in my mind], that never really works out good, at least in the past. Six times."

He is Phil, the over-analyzer.

Asked whether he pondered the six second-place finishes and could draw from those anything that might help going forward, he noted that five of the six times, it had rained.

"I'm pulling for rain," he said. "I feel like if it rains this week, it will be much more difficult for guys to putt from off the green. It will force them to chip, and if it is wet, it's so much easier to chip where the ball is skidding through the first bounce and then checking. See, as the edges of the greens roll, they're also — the grain is going into you."

Huh?

Then, he is Phil, the gambling man.

He has a history of rolling the dice — maybe literally and certainly figuratively. It is most visible on the golf course. If there is a three-inch opening in a set of tree branches 40 yards ahead of him, he will go for it. He lost a U.S. Open in 2006 at Winged Foot with some low-percentage shot selection on the 18th hole, which he began with a one-shot lead and ended with a double bogey and second place.

"I am such an idiot," he said afterward, which was an attractive reaction to all who have tried stupid shots on the golf course.

For years, there have been rumors of big bets by Phil on things such as the Super Bowl. He frequently winks and nods to the media after practice rounds before majors, indicating that there was some fun wagering taking place.

And then came the recent news that he was part of a federal investigation, along with billionaire investor Carl Icahn and known big-time gambler Billy Walters, into possible insider trading in 2011 on Clorox stock.

There have been no charges, probably won't be and most likely no laws were broken. A recent email to golf writers from Mickelson's lawyers quoted him as saying he had done nothing wrong and would comment no more.

And he hasn't.

But if this goes away, as it likely will, there is still no denying that Mickelson, while walking the fairways of golf and life with a smile on his face and a welcoming nature not often seen in pro sports, loves to find an edge.

Forbes says he makes $30 million a year in endorsements alone. With $30 million, who needs an edge?

Apparently, our man Phil.

Just as when he reaches into the golf bag for a club to hit through the pine tree and over the clubhouse chimney, it is part of the ongoing mystery and attraction of Mickelson.

The man named Phil.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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SportsColumnGolfPhil MickelsonU.S. Open (golf)Payne StewartInsider Trading
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