Lipping Out 26 Phil Mickelson

Do Not Taunt Philip Alfred Mickelson

A chance round, a cocky kid and a life lesson at the hands of Lefty

Tiger calls it “giving the needle.” Most of us mortals just call it “talking shit.” But, as I learned on a day I’ll never forget at Torrey Pines, few do it better than Lefty.

Think what you will about Phil Mickelson today, but in February 2002 he was a 20-time winner whom fans and media alike desperately wanted to see win his first major. He was aww-shucks-ing his way through the golf world, landing flop shots like snowflakes falling on a kitten’s tongue and throwing goofy thumbs-ups to seemingly every fan in every gallery. And he was at Torrey Pines that year as the defending champion, a local boy happily coming home.

Meanwhile, I was also playing golf in San Diego. A member of the San Diego State golf team, I remember being slim to quite slim, ridiculously limber and perhaps a shade too cocky. Phil’s brother, Tim, was SDSU’s assistant coach and my roommate; we shared a dirty, beautiful spot on 54th Street, a short walk from campus. (Tim is now Phil’s caddie, and whenever I see him on TV I think back to when I was standing on the 16th tee of Stanford Golf Club in 2004, having an absolute heater of a day, and he asked me, “What will you shoot if you birdie out?” After I begrudgingly did the math, I muttered, “Fifty-nine.” I proceeded to par out for a 62, and Tim and I both learned valuable lessons: I vowed to always stay in the moment, and hopefully Tim learned to zip it if your man ever has a chance of breaking 60.

In November 2001, the host organization for the San Diego PGA Tour event (back then it was the Buick Invitational) held its annual amateur qualifier, where the top-two finishers earned spots in the tournament. My teammate John Lieber and I each shot 68 on the North Course, good enough for a three-way tie for first place. We both advanced through the playoff, giving us a chance to play with the big boys.

The first thing I did when I got back to the house was ask Tim if he would caddie for me, and he emphatically agreed. I was fired up to have a friend on the bag who knew both my game and all 36 at Torrey. And I was hoping it would give me a chance to get a practice round in with Tim’s famous brother.

He made it happen. On Tuesday of tournament week, Phil, John, former Aztec golfer Dennis Paulson and I played a friendly Nassau on the newly renovated South Course, which had just opened for play that week. On the first tee, we worked the teams out to Phil and me against Dennis and John. Phil casually suggested to Dennis that we play for “dimes,” and I had no idea what that meant, although I was certain it was out of my price range. (It still is.) But we agreed, hoping that Phil or Dennis wouldn’t come to collect from us college kids if things went badly.

Whether it was the adrenaline, the flexibility or something special I have yet to rediscover, I absolutely pounded driver all day and had one of the best rounds of my life. With a 32 on the front and a holed wedge from 75 yards to the uphill blind green on No. 13, Phil and I were comfortably ahead walking to the 14th tee. I was feeling so good that I even tried some thumbs-ups to the gallery. Then I started chirping to Phil. I’d been outdriving him all day, so walking  to the 15th tee I sidled up next to him and said, “Phil, I heard you were long out here on Tour, but apparently not long enough to keep up with some college kid.” He said nothing and gave me a little smile.

I went first and absolutely roasted my tee shot, allowing me to chirp even more to the second-ranked player on the planet. Phil went next. He reached back more than I had seen all day and unleashed a moon ball that was still well in the air as it sailed past mine. He handed his driver to Bones, put his arm around me and ever-so-gently said, “Out here on Tour, some of us have an extra gear.”

Then he waltzed past my ball and took what seemed like an eternity to reach his own. Once he got there, he pulled out his Bushnell range finder, pointed it at me and yelled—loud enough for hundreds in the gallery to hear—“Forty-five!” Forty-five fucking yards he hit it past me. I’ll never forget the numbers: The man was 118 yards out on that 478-yard par 4. Immediately rattled, I bogeyed three of the last four holes.

Phil and I still won the match, and I never saw a “dime” from the game. (Yes, this means Dennis Paulson still owes me a couple thousand bucks.) I went on to shoot 75-73 and comfortably miss the cut, so one might say the lesson from that round was to talk less shit, especially around guys who can back it up. To hell with that. I vowed to never stop giving people the needle. You never know when it will lead to the most memorable round of your life.

Mark Warman is the key account manager for The Golfer’s Journal.