2003: Perspective - Mickelson draws fire, bemusement

Pebble Beach, Calif.

Sixty-five. Seventy. Seventy-five.

Phil Mickelson was trying to bring heat in the parking lot at Poppy Hills. Other players travel with GPS distance finders to measure yardages. Mickelson brings a radar gun so he and his entourage can determine how hard Lefty, throwing righty, can wing a baseball.

On this particular evening, after Round 1 of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Mickelson’s fastball topped out at 77 mph. He was surprisingly loose, considering that only a half-hour before he was trying to explain the high, hard one he’d unleashed at Nike Golf.

That chin music, of course, was a remark that appears in the current issue of Golf magazine.

Asked by interviewer Peter Kessler (remember him?) if there are issues that strain his relationship with Tiger Woods, Mickelson replied, in part: “In my mind, Tiger and I don’t have issues between us. Well, maybe one. He hates that I can fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he’s stuck with.”

An advance copy of the six-page interview was leaked to the Orlando Sentinel, which Woods presumably reads over breakfast. (That, incidentally, was a brilliant piece of promotional work by Golf magazine. It’s an amusing Q&A, but would have garnered far less attention had the “inferior equipment” line not been played up in the dailies.)

The Sentinel story – headlined “Mickelson: Woods hurt by inferior equipment” – included a predictable reaction from Nike Golf president Bob Wood, a guy you’d fully expect to charge the mound after a brush-back.

“I really question the wisdom of Phil Mickelson calling Tiger Woods out,” Wood said. “This is a guy who has never beaten Tiger in any significant tournament. And this is what he believes, what he says? That’s a laughable assertion.”

The Nike PR machine further counterpunched with a “setting-the-record-straight” news release, which detailed Woods’ accomplishments after switching from Titleist to Nike’s golf ball, driver and irons. The release also noted 16 victories and 52 top 10s by Nike players last year on the PGA Tour, Buy.com Tour and European Tour, and Woods’ 12-2 record against Mickelson in head-to-head competition in 2002.

The media coverage forced Mickelson’s representatives at Gaylord Sports Management into damage control mode. Their news release acknowledged the quote “is entirely accurate as written” but was made in a “jocular moment.”

“I hope that line wasn’t taken out of context by some people,” Mickelson said in the release. “It was meant as nothing more than a positive comment on Tiger’s incredible talent.”

Two days later, at the AT&T, Mickelson expressed dismay at the attention his remark had attracted. But Lefty was neither apologetic nor contrite.

“Hey guys, what’s going on?” he said, grinning as he approached the media scrum after his opening round at Poppy Hills. “It was just an even-par 72. Thanks for coming out today.”

After an obligatory review of his seven birdies, four bogeys and triple bogey – his other scores for the week were 71-73-80 – Mickelson fielded the questions everyone had come to ask.

“I tried to get my intent clear (in the press release),” he said. “I certainly am surprised at the reaction and the stir it’s caused, but I don’t know what else to say.”

Asked if he would seek Woods’ forgiveness at the Buick Invitational, Mickelson replied: “I don’t know why I would say anything. I probably will, but there certainly was no negativity (meant). Not only that one particular quote, but the whole article was very positive towards him. So there’s really nothing to apologize to him for. But certainly the way it came across to the company he represents, I felt bad about.”

That Mickelson didn’t take up Kessler’s offer of a “mulligan” is difficult to comprehend. He was given the chance during the interview to rephrase any answer, and he got to review a transcript before publication. He insisted that the incendiary nature of the “inferior equipment” line went right over his head.

“It was two months ago that we did the interview,” Mickelson said. “When I read it, I really did not catch any of that.”

Maybe he didn’t, but it was the talk of the range at Pebble.

“Oh yeah, Phil’s been in the news lately,” said John Cook, a Nike staff player and Woods’ neighbor in Orlando. “If he had anything to back it up with, it would be different.

“But that’s Phil. Phil will say what Phil wants to say. You kind of look at it and laugh. Giggle and turn the page.”

Interestingly, Cook was paired at the AT&T with Mark O’Meara, a Woods confidant who, like Mickelson, is under contract to Titleist. His take?

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said O’Meara. “I love Phil, but come on, get a grip.”

Truth is, grind off the logo and the Nike irons Woods plays are nearly identical in shape and design to the Titleist custom model he used for five seasons and the Mizuno blades he wielded before that.

Drivers, however, are another matter. Iron specs might be interchangeable, but there are many more variables involved in dialing in on the right driver. Depending on whom you believe, Woods has gone through 50 to 200 Nike drivers in his search for consistency.

“I can’t speak for Tiger, but I think the only thing he struggles with a little bit is the driver,” said O’Meara. “And I’m not so sure it’s the Nike driver. I think it has something to do with the fact, whether it’s a Nike or any other driver, that the ball comes off a lot faster. For him, he doesn’t need that. He can’t curve it as well.”

O’Meara said the narrowing distance gap between Woods and his rivals has gotten his friend’s attention, but the “launch clubs” they’re using “aren’t necessarily what work for Tiger Woods.”

If Woods wanted to, Cook said, he could hit it by anyone on Tour.

“But his game is all about control,” Cook said. “That’s why they can’t beat him. Right now

Ernie Els is close; Phil is not close, because he does not have the control it takes to win a big championship.”

As for Woods, only he and his inner circle know whether he was amused or incensed by Mickelson’s remarks. O’Meara said he had spoken to Woods about the story, and alluded to some humorous text messages they exchanged during the AT&T, but offered no details. “He handled it with class,” O’Meara said, “like he always does.”

Meanwhile, the full Mickelson interview is recommended reading. In it, he discusses his ongoing battle against subcutaneous fat.

Which makes you wonder, why the steady diet of foot in mouth?

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