Consider that Phil Mickelson has won 57 professional golf events and can boast more top 10 finishes at Augusta than Tiger Woods, yet is still not the most successful player of his generation.
The likable American even says that although their rivalry over the years has helped them to a collective total of 21 majors and 127 PGA Tour wins, the competitive spirit is still strong. It’s what drives the 51-year-old on, with the unfettered joy following his win at Kiawah Island showing that success now means every bit as much to him as it did when he turned pro 29 years ago.
RSNG How important is rivalry in golf? PHIL MICKELSON, GOLFING GREAT “I think it’s important in any sport. Unless you have that competitive spirit there is really nothing. Sure, we all play for pleasure, but the real pleasure is going up against someone and proving you’re the best, right?”
“Of course, golf and a few other select sports are interesting because the competitiveness is really just as much against yourself. You may well face someone else over 18 holes, but every time you go back to that course you are taking on your previous scores, so there are almost two strands to the whole thing, and that makes it very interesting.”
“You can have a great win against an opponent but be below your best; on the other hand you can shoot your best score for a long time and still lose in a head-to-head – that’s golf! That’s why it’s so addictive."
RSNG When did that addiction start for you? PHIL MICKELSON “For me it was right back when I was a kid… probably about seven or eight years old. I was picking up rubbish at a local golf course, on the range, around the pathways and generally trying to keep the place as clean and tidy as I could.
“It was my way of being able to get to a golf course and eventually, hit a few balls out there. I always wanted to make sure that I was around golf every second that I could be. I continued doing that job right through high school and was getting as much practice, as well as taking in as much advice as possible.”
“I mean, even if I was offered the chance to start my life all over again, would I have chosen a different route? No, I probably wouldn’t change how I did things, how I learnt the game and the way that I went about it. I’d encourage kids to go to their local course and do that, then go from there as they grow up.”
Golf is interesting because the competitiveness is really just as much against yourself
RSNG If you are to win another major, will it most likely be at Augusta, right? After all, it is a place you know so well? [ED: Mickelson has won there three times and finished in the top 10 on a further 12 occasions.] PHIL MICKELSON “Well, it’s always been a special place for me personally and it is such an iconic event and course, because it’s the only venue that doesn’t change for the major championships. That has to be a factor, because you know what to expect.”
“Of course, there will be slight changes to holes and maybe a few of them being longer to combat the ever-advancing drives of the modern golfing professionals; but in essence, the way that you play the 18 holes isn’t going to change. That does give me an advantage having made my debut there in 1991 as the lowest-scoring amateur, and I love the place.”
“It’s on your mind for most of the year and my practice sessions are geared towards the parts of my game which I know I need to always fine-tune before going to Augusta. I’d love nothing more than to win one more major and if it was to be the Masters – especially after Tiger did it last year, then that would be great.”
RSNG There was some talk in the past that you and Tiger Woods didn’t really see eye to eye. But certainly, as shown in The Match – where you went head to head and provided some great entertainment, that’s not the case – at least any more? PHIL MICKELSON “When you’re competing against each other, you want to win. That can sometimes come across as bad blood. But we’ve both had our issues over the years – obviously very different issues outside of golf and certainly, over the last few years, we have become a lot closer than maybe we once were.”
“When you are battling for the big honors against someone who seems to be there all of the time and you’re representing your country in so many Ryder Cups and President’s Cups, you’re always going to be in close proximity. In order to win, you have to leave your ego out of it – or that can beat you before you’ve even picked up your golf club.”
“I have definitely been pulling for Tiger to come back to form, and while he may never reproduce his awesome performances when he was in his early 20s, he’s unquestionably shown glimpses of that. In winning the Masters, he proved a lot of people wrong who felt he was no longer capable of winning a major. Hopefully I can do the same.”
“There’s every chance that both of us are still in the shape that we are, because we have pushed each other – not just what we have won or the success that we have had. Certainly, for me, I’d say that the fact Tiger was so good when I was consistently playing well, helped me go that extra mile.”
RSNG Does it frighten you to see the talents of younger players coming through? PHIL MICKELSON “No! People talk about their diets and physiques, but I was speaking to Tiger about 2003 and he advised me to get some physical exercises and weight-training into my preparations – and without question, it helped me.”
“We are both still attempting to compete against the younger players around in the game today and by staying healthy and being fit, is aiding that cause and prolonging our careers. So, without Tiger, there is a chance I may not be playing this far… I’m not stopping just yet! Haha!”
In winning the Masters, Tiger proved wrong a lot of people who felt he was no longer capable of winning a major – hopefully I can do the same
RSNG When you get to the stage that you are in your career, how do you maintain the form, consistency and the ability to compete with those younger players who are hitting the ball a mile? PHIL MICKELSON “You’ve just got to keep practicing, keep your diet and fitness up and keep believing that you can compete. Because the moment that any of those things go out of the window, so does your career. There is no point in continuing in a profession if you don’t have that hunger or determination to succeed – you might as well just call it a day.”
“I love the game and I am still learning about myself. The way that I see things is that I have improved in certain aspects of my game over time. I honestly think that the way I play the game now, to make sure that I always play the best shots for myself, is better than it was in my 20s, for sure.”
“I can’t always be as aggressive as I used to be, so I have learnt that if I play certain shots in a certain way, it will allow me to be aggressive at the right times and I think that my game has benefitted from that. I play less bad shots than I used to. Do I play as many good ones as I have done in my career? I don’t know.”
WHAT NEXT? Read RNSG’s interview with a golfer who is gunning for his own Open Championship: Jon Rham.