Dustin Johnson was the MVP of the golf world in Mexico City this past week. It is indisputable. He validated his No. 1 ranking. But if there was a MWP (Most Watchable Player) for the week, it was, no doubt, Phil Mickelson and his lumberjack assault of the trees at Club de Golf Chapultepec. He is validating his position as golf’s fan favorite.
Is it possible that Mickelson will go down as the most beloved golfer of his generation? It’s laughable on the surface because a GOAT resides in his age bracket.
While nobody can argue Lefty’s golfing accomplishments versus Tiger Woods, his greater value to the game of golf now and, potentially, in the future, raises an interesting debate.
The Game – Tiger’s failing body has taken golf away from him and vice versa. When he reappears, he is a shell of his former, magnificent self. The shine is tarnished. The more Johnson wins, the more Tiger’s power becomes a footnote in history, rather than a defining characteristic of the modern game.
Meanwhile, Mickelson is still the swashbuckling gambler about whom fans love to worry. He is the cool uncle you wish you could be but can never risk trying to become. He hits shots you can’t believe, never sees a gap in the trees that's too small, and then raises your blood pressure by putting himself back in the same spot minutes later.
Beyond the entertainment, he’s a 46-year-old physical freak. He is able to keep up with the young guns, push Henrik Stenson to the greatest Open Championship final round ever and birdie seemingly every hole in the Ryder Cup. He’s missed one cut in 15 starts and will win soon. When he does, the cheers will be deafening.
The Voice - Woods is absent, even at his own press conferences. Phil, meanwhile, is everywhere. He’s selling arthritis medicine and Epic drivers at a rapid clip, and he's teasing a personal brand launch. He surpassed Tiger as golf’s top annual earner. He also has no trouble voicing his opinion and (while guarded on access) sharing some incredible stories. His appearance on “Feherty” this week will only improve that street cred.
The Kids – Beyond the gambling games and intimidation plays, Phil’s presence has been a guide for so many in the generation behind him. Woods’ various absences hurt his ability to generate those relationships, many of which can only happen organically by playing with each other.
Jon Rahm is the ‘next’ golfer on everybody’s mind. Whose opinion does the media reference to talk about his potential greatness? Phil. It’s as if he blessed his talent with an endorsement of his game.
The Fans – Even when Mickelson was considered a locker room outcast, unable to escape his own ego in his early years on Tour, that smile wooed fans. His inability to get to the top of the mountain, coupled with the outpouring of support during the cancer battles of his wife and mom, created a mutual respect between Phil and golf fans that is palpable to those on site at any tournament.
He signs more autographs than any superstar. The best player to never be ranked No. 1, he may be the most non-elite elitist, in perception, of the super rich. He can commute by jet to each round of a major, but it’s for family. The fans feel like they are on that plane.
While that feeling of accessibility is a mirage, don’t discount the power it has in all phases of Mickelson Inc.
There was a time when this idea would be laughed out of the room. Tiger owned everything. He was the best with a club in his hand. He was the best with that smile and a microphone at a press conference. He forged friendships with veterans to earn respect away from the course. Much of that evaporated, either by his doing or bad luck. He fell out of the lead, and who was in second. Yep, Phil.
The Other Winner
Each week during the season, I will offer up one player who, while not winning, escaped unnoticed with a big finish.
Rory McIlroy – He admitted to nerves on the weekend, turning heads in the process, because it had been a while since he was in the arena of big time, winning golf. His final two days were sloppy and off form, but he got a top 10 out of it nonetheless.
2017 feels like an important year for Rory. He is now judged by majors, and getting his fifth after a two-year drought would be nice. He fought through food poisoning and rib recovery to be a factor. That’s a win.