Sunday 22 October 2017

Leftie eyes best birthday present of all

Merion victory would make Father's Day special for Phil Mickelson, who turns 43 today, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

As the evening sun dipped towards the horizon like a fiery ball, Phil Mickelson struck his last shot in the second round of the US Open. It was a 20-foot putt which found the target for a rare birdie on the 18th and confirmed our suspicions that something special might be happening for America's favourite leftie at Merion.

How could we see it otherwise? This, after all, was the player who made his professional debut in the US Open; was runner-up on five occasions and who made a dramatic 5,490-mile round trip to his daughter's graduation before arriving back in Philadelphia in the early hours of Thursday morning.

And who celebrates his 43rd birthday today, Father's Day.

I can recall Pinehurst in 1999 when the media got similarly wound-up about the possibility of Mickelson becoming a father while making his US Open breakthrough. That was when a beeper linked him with his wife Amy in a maternity hospital in Phoenix and a private plane was ready to fly him there if the call came.

And I remember thinking that any experienced father could have told him that in the majority of cases, first babies are notorious for arriving late. And the child to be christened Amanda, naturally followed suit.

"If I'm able, and I believe I will ultimately win a US Open, I would say that it's great," he said this weekend. "Because I would have a win and five seconds. And if I never get that win, then it would be a bit disheartening."

An enduring link with this championship began at Pebble Beach in 1992 when he seemed to be making the most perfect professional debut imaginable. With a first-round 68, he found himself tied third at the end of the opening day, two strokes behind the clear leader, Gil Morgan. Reality was to hit hard, however, in a second-round 81 which left him two strokes outside the halfway cut.

Irish enthusiasts were already familiar with Mickelson from his amateur days, highlighted by a decidedly mixed impact on the Walker Cup at Portmarnock the previous year.

Golfing purists remember the exquisite flop-shot he played with a sand wedge off a bare lie behind the 18th green to within two feet of the hole, while the public at large learnt another side to this sweet-smiling American.

When describing a particularly wayward drive into rough on the ninth during a singles win over Andrew Coltart, 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 is Irish," she said. "Her maiden name was McBride. So you see, it was all a misunderstanding."

Still, diplomacy has never been his strong suit, notably in public utterances about Tiger Woods and the "inferior" golf equipment he was using. And there was the famous occasion at Augusta, 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, there is a belief here that he has paid his dues as a challenger for the blue riband of American golf. Which brings 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."

The feeling is that Mickelson may finally find the US Open target this time around.

Irish Independent

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