We Didn’t Know Tiger — Do We Know Phil?

published April 15, 2010

Maybe we just don’t want to learn.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after a week’s worth of pre-Masters hype, mid-tournament talk, and post-Masters euphoria.

Lessons are for cynics and spoilsports.

The storyline was irresistible: The philandering rake returns to the game and gets his clock cleaned by the husband and father good and true, himself buoyed and emboldened by the presence of his brave and beaming wife.  The gallant sheriff outdraws the bad guy; the real hero rises and the false one is cast out; virtue triumphs.

The long and emotional embrace between Phil and Amy Mickelson by the final green was one of the most tender moments ever seen in sports.  Amy, smacked by the effects of her breast cancer treatments, spent most of the week in bed, but got herself to the golf course when it was apparent her man would be the winner.  Phil, not knowing she’d be there until he saw her, holed his last putt and then hurried to her, the two drawing strength from each other for their very different battles, his victory hopefully presaging her more critical one.

We saw all that, and knew all we needed to know.  Or do we?

I don’t know any deep, dark secrets about Phil Mickelson.  I don’t know if there are any.  I don’t know him.

But not so long ago, an awful lot of people thought Phil was a phony. One-liners mocked his personality, physique, and overweening self-assurance.  At Phoenix’s Tour stop two years ago, Mickelson gave a pair of Super Bowl tickets to a young boy and his father in his gallery, an act of generosity he just happened to commit before a running television camera.

There were stories of his big sports gambling wins, stories of a kind that often conveniently omit mention of sizable balancing losses.  There were stories of big tips and big bills given to street panhandlers.  These stories may all be true.  I don’t know.

He is, almost certainly, the second-greatest golfer of his time.  His game is well suited to Augusta National, less so to winning other major championships.  He hasn’t got a conservative golfing bone in his body; his desire to go for it at all times is so great that he has taken the driver out of his bag at U.S. Opens rather than face its temptations on the narrow, demanding courses.  He can’t, or won’t, adjust; he equates “smart” in golf with “no guts.”

Phil’s apparent love for his wife and family, and his apparent support of her and his mother in their times of illness and distress, speak well for him.  Genuine crises can bring out the best in people; they can change and learn and grow.  There’s no point in going through a life-altering experience without letting your life be altered by it.

Perhaps he is all the things we wanted to read into him in the golden sunlight of an Augusta afternoon.  Great husband.  Great father.  Great guy.  Great role model.

But wasn’t it just a few months ago that we learned a lesson about athletes and role models?  That we shouldn’t think we know a man’s character because of what we see of him on TV?  That a sports star’s real life, real self, may be nothing like we imagine it to be?  That a smile – whether goofy or toothy – tells us nothing about the person behind it?

Mickelson is not and has not been the tightly controlled and controlling figure that Woods is.  But we still don’t really know him, do we?  Any more than we really knew Steve McNair, or Ben Roethlisberger, or Michael Vick?  Or Tiger Woods?

We know him the way we know athletes and celebrities.  Haven’t we learned yet that that’s not enough?

Has he cheated on his wife, his taxes, his final exams at ASU?  Has he left business partners in the lurch, turned his back on old friends, taken credit for work done by others?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so, I don’t have any reason to believe he’s done any of these things, but the truth is I don’t know.

I do know that Phil Mickelson won a golf tournament last week.  His ailing wife came to the course to greet him as he finished.  They hugged, kissed, and seemed very happy.

It was nice.

‘Nuff said.

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