Back in the day when he was the cool guy with the turned-up collar, who would have dreamed Phil Mickelson would become a mother hen?
Mickelson, 41, surely would shudder at the moniker. But it can’t be any more childish than the trash talk being thrown around during his practice rounds with some of the PGA Tour’s up-and-coming young Americans.
To hone the game’s 20-somethings for future spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, Mickelson is teaching them to perform under pressure in friendly but competitive matches. And the youngsters have to put their money where their mouths are.
“There’s no better way to handle pressure and to get ready for a final round, get ready for a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup than playing for your own money,” Mickelson said Saturday. “I think that’s the best way to learn to compete.”
It’s also the best way to learn the nuances of some of the nation’s top golf courses. On Saturday, for the second consecutive day during the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Keegan Bradley recalled a Mickelson tip from Wednesday to read a putt, this time on a speedy downhill lag at the seventh hole, which Bradley used to make par.
Bradley stands at 10 under going into today’s final round, tied for fourth and 2 shots behind leader Adam Scott. And to Mickelson’s chagrin, 11 strokes ahead of him.
Mickelson, the sixth-ranked player in the world, has his usual pre-tournament foursome of himself and Jeff Overton against Dustin Johnson and Steve Marino. But at the Players Championship in May, he invited Bradley and Brendan Steele, two rookies from the Nationwide Tour, to join him and Overton for nine holes of match play.
Of course, Mickelson probably escorted them to the ATM first.
“It doesn’t matter whose cash it is, it still spends the same,” Mickelson joked.
At the Players, Mickelson needed to make a 14-foot putt on the last hole to beat Steele and Bradley. Steele said Mickelson even brought over caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay to help read it.
“You could tell it was the first one he really focused on for the day,” Steele said.
On Wednesday at Firestone Country Club, the match expanded to 18 holes. By then, Steele and Bradley had become millionaires. Steele earned his first career victory before the Players, at the Valero Texas Open on April 17, and Bradley broke through with a victory at the HP Byron Nelson Championship on May 29.
On Firestone’s South Course, Bradley and Steele were 1-up on Mickelson and Overton going to the 18th hole, but Overton birdied to salvage a push.
Needing a save from Overton would seem like good ammunition for the rookies the next time out, if they have the nerve to use it.
“I don’t want to rile him up too much, next time he’ll probably shoot 60 on us,” Steele said of Mickelson.
And make no mistake, there will be a next time, even though it probably won’t be at next week’s PGA Championship.
The beauty of it all is that Mickelson is managing to make the lessons fun.
“He likes to give you the needle all the time,” Steele said. “He likes it when you give it back. He only does it if he likes you. If he stops giving you a hard time, you know you’re probably not doing something right.”
Mickelson said he honed his needling against some of his mentors like Paul Azinger, Payne Stewart, Ben Crenshaw and Fred Couples.
“Zinger and I had some good games and he’s an all-pro disher. I learned from him,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson said he loves playing with Steele, 28, a UC-Riverside graduate, and Bradley, 25, a St. John’s product, because of their enthusiasm. Bradley, Steele and Overton, 28, out of Indiana University, are all represented by Mickelson’s agency, Gaylord Sports Management.
“I really like the gusto that guys like Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley have,” Mickelson said. “They’ve won, they know how to close the deal, they know how to compete and they don’t back down. That type of attitude is going to take them a long way in this game.”
But there is a method to Mickelson’s match-play madness. Mickelson is hoping to help the youngsters learn to stay cool under pressure.
“That’s the reason why we play an 18-hole match, it’s not a Nassau, there’s not presses here and there, no side action anywhere,” Mickelson said. “I want guys, especially young guys who are going to be on the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, to be getting in that mind frame of an 18-hole match. I think it eventually will have a little bit of a carry-over effect.”
Steele and Bradley can’t believe their idol is taking an interest in them. But they believe he’s helping.
“You’ve got to practice with something on the line to get the juices flowing,” Steele said. “It’s good for us to pay attention rather than just kind of slapping it around in a practice round.”
‘Under his wing’
Playing at Firestone Country Club since the NEC World Series of Golf in 1993, Mickelson has also offered the youngsters insight on the South Course, like its blind tee shots. On Thursday, Bradley made a 12-foot putt on the third hole that Mickelson had made him attempt on Wednesday because he wanted to point out that it broke the opposite way than it looked.
“I’m glad that it helps, kind of,” Mickelson said.
But some advice is more general, like how to handle a late tee time. At the Byron Nelson, Bradley heeded Mickelson’s words — arrive early for practice, then have lunch before teeing off rather than hanging around a hotel room getting lethargic — and used the strategy to win.
“Phil takes a lot of guys under his wing, more than people know about,” Bradley said. “When I played with him at the Players he gave me his phone number and said, ‘Text me any time.’ Sure enough, one of the first texts I got after I won was from Phil and Bones.
“I really truly think he’s there looking to help. He’s a great guy to listen to. When Phil says something to you, you seem to remember it.”
Bradley and Steele still seem in awe of Mickelson. Bradley said the first time he texted Mickelson, he probably signed his name in fear Mickelson wouldn’t recognize the number.
“I remember reading it over like 10 times,” Bradley said. “I didn’t want to sound like a little kid or something.”
But that might not keep Bradley and Steele from tracking the Bridgestone scores as an extension of their Wednesday match.
For the record, the rookies are 12 shots up with 18 holes to play. It’s time for the mother hen to get cracking.