Leader Blues

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

SPORTS >> Mickelson gracious as ever at St. Jude

Leader sports editor

MEMPHIS — I got a wild hair on Saturday morning and decided to make the two-hour trip to Memphis for the third round of the St. Jude Classic.

I’m back to tell you that that was $40 well spent ($46 if you add in the two bottles of water). That’s either the third or fourth time I’ve been to Southwind for the event, but the most recent had been about eight or nine years ago and I’d forgotten what an outstanding tournament it is — from the reasonable price of admission to the beauty of the golf course to the uniform friendliness and downright cheeriness of the volunteers. OK, the $3 water seemed a bit excessive and had me considering, along about the 15th hole, sneaking into the backyard of one of those stately mansions and taking a pull off a garden hose.

But still the total cost, with gas added in, was about $60. For that, I got the thrill of getting within arm’s length of John Daly and Phil Mickelson. In fact, it was Lefty I went over to see. His last visit to Southwind was also mine and that’s no coincidence.

Lefty is my guy on the Tour. I’ve always loved the guy, always loved his game, his on-course demeanor, his goofy aw-shucks grin, his earnestness in interviews and what has always struck me as his basic decency.

So I followed him and his playing partners Glen Day of Little Rock and an up-and-comer named Brendan Todd most of the day. The problem with that decision was that I’m not alone in my adoration of Lefty. Most of the fans seemed to fall into one of two groups on Saturday – those watching Mickelson and those watching Daly. Daly went off about five groups behind Mickelson on the back nine, so by the time Big John teed off on 10, some of Lefty’s gallery had tapered back to watch the troubled, but slimmed-down Arkansan in the gold pants with black diamonds, the mauve-tinted sunglasses and the buzz cut.

It was Daly’s first PGA Tour event in the United States since he was suspended last fall after the latest in a long line of transgressions. This one may have been his passing out in the parking lot of a Hooter’s, but who can keep up? It was Mickelson’s first appearance since the announcement last month that his wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Observations: Obvious and otherwise

These guys are GOOD. The only thing I saw that even vaguely resembled my feeble attempts at the game was when the rotund Guy Boros, who seems like 300 pounds of good guy, stubbed an easy chip from just off the seventh green about six feet – not from the cup but from the point where he chipped it. There was an embarrassed gasp from the few people surrounding the green. Me, I almost said ‘Good shot,’ given that I would have either stubbed that chip about two feet or bladed it clean across the green.

I have to say that Boros’ chip was the only thing that made me recognize the game I’ve so futilely flailed away at for the past 40 years. More importantly, it allowed me to put some sort of human face on these guys. Because, honestly, they are all so much better than most of us that they all seem equally good. Their booming, accurate drives and pinpoint approaches that seem to hang in the air forever struck me as effortless and strangely unexceptional.

Even Dicky Pride, the 1994 winner here, didn’t look bad in shooting a 42 on the front nine on Saturday. Pride was a group ahead of Mickelson so I got to watch a lot of his round. Pride seemed to take it all in stride, kept plugging away, betraying no emotion either way as he struggled mightily through the 93-degree heat. Pride’s win here 15 years ago, by the way, came in his rookie season. He hasn’t won since. I decided watching the guy on Saturday that I like him and I hope he someday gets a second win.

Other observations: Glen Day is the slowest player I’ve ever seen in my life. If you paired him with Daly or Rory Sabbatini, he’d end up with a wedge buried in his forehead. I counted a full 27 seconds from the time he teed the ball up to the time he hit the ball. And it’s the worst kind of slow, too. Several times during his interminable address, he got all our hopes up by pressing the club forward as though ready to swing. Then, maddeningly, he’d raise his head again and glance down the fairway. (It hasn’t moved, Glen. Hit it!)

I figure he added at least 10 minutes to the round. It was hardly a surprise that nearly a full hole separated his group from the group ahead. Those poor tournament officials who raised their quaint ‘Hush-y’all’ sticks whenever a player got ready to hit never did learn, raising them as soon as Day addressed the ball, then gamely trying to muster the muscle strength to keep them raised until, at long last, Day mercifully hit it.

He’s no Tiger … thankfully

One final observation, and the one I set out to make when I started this: Anybody who suggests, as I have heard some do, that Phil Mickelson is somehow a phony or not really what he appears to be, is full of it. I never really doubted it, but after watching him conduct three separate interviews following a hot day on Saturday, then sign autographs for another 15 minutes, I’m even more of a fan.

I watched his body language as he was interviewed first by David Feherty on CBS, then by the Golf Channel, then by the print media (the real lowlifes of the journalism profession). He was earnest, gracious and fully engaged.

No sooner had he completed those interviews than he walked over to the ropes and began to graciously and patiently sign hats, balls, scorecards and tournament programs. Fans were lined up three and four deep for some 15 yards down the ropes.

On and on he signed.

One little girl pressed her way to the front of the rope line, held out her pink visor and shouted, “Mr. Mickelson, Mr. Mickelson.”

She got squeezed out, unfortunately, and I watched the disappointment cross her face. Her father told someone she’d been trying for three days to get his autograph and I suddenly found myself fully invested in her quest. Phil had been signing for about 10 minutes and we all knew it wouldn’t go on forever, so dad admonished her to fight her way back to the front.

Finally, she spotted an opening, squeezed up to the ropes and held her hat out high. Sure enough, Lefty grabbed it, signed it and handed it back to her.

The little girl turned around, her mouth a perfect O of delight and disbelief.