Mickelson dances golf's invisible line

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- There comes a time in the life of every great golfer when he crosses an invisible, but inevitable, line.

On one side of the line, you are a contender in major championships; an elite athlete and artist with a club in your hands. You're still carving your name, and legacy, in sterling trophies. Your reach, to steal a line from Robert Browning, does not yet exceed your grasp.

On the line's other side, golf is mostly about sentiment and ceremony. Occasionally, there are flashes of what once was, thrilling reminders of the man you used to be. But the cruel truth is, it does not last, not over four full days. It's almost impossible to cross back, to find yourself on the other side of the line. You can get a day pass that lets you revisit your golfing prime. Maybe even two or three. But it's bound to expire, sometimes in the cruelest manner possible. (See: Tom Watson, 2009 at Turnberry.) Even the rare exceptions -- Jack Nicklaus' 1986 Masters at age 46; Hale Irwin in the 1990 U.S. Open at 45 -- delude us into believing it can still happen, deep into the twilight of a golfing career, when so much of history suggests otherwise.

So what side of the line does Phil Mickelson currently occupy?

It's an interesting question to ask this week as Mickelson plays in The Open for the 23rd time. If he does not produce a surprise victory this week at age 45, two full years will have come and gone since his last professional win, in The Open at Muirfield. There have been moments in recent years that suggest he might not be done collecting majors -- finishing second to Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship in 2014; finishing second to Jordan Spieth at the Masters this year -- but Mickelson is, at best, straddling the line. This week should offer more evidence about where exactly he resides.

Mickelson grinded through difficult wind conditions in the first round Thursday to shoot a 2-under 70, a solid score considering the elements, and one that keeps him in contention, at least for the moment.

"I played really well today, especially the back nine into the wind," Mickelson said. "It reminded me of when I was a kid and couldn't reach some of the par 4s. I love playing St. Andrews in these conditions. I wish the entire field had those conditions. This is such a great golf course, and it's designed to play in this kind of weather."

There's been a lightness to Mickelson this week, a playful hint of whimsy that's a bit surprising considering controversy over recent revelations by ESPN's Outside The Lines that approximately $2.75 million of his money was part of "an illegal gambling operation which accepted and placed bets on sporting events." (Mickelson, sources told Outside The Lines, is not facing charges nor is he under investigation.) But it was another example suggesting that Mickelson has, in a sense, become the Bill Clinton of the golfing world.

Some look at his career and see, despite five majors, lots of promise squandered, his potential only partially fulfilled. Others see his faults, the controversies of his life both big and small, and insist all of it has humanized him. Mickelson, much like Clinton, is a magnet that people feel drawn to, and he feels the emotional pull in return. He's always loved soaking up the adoration of crowds, tipping his hat, flashing his game-show-host smile, offering a dozen thumbs-up to fans on the walk from green to tee. A routine that would exhaust most players seems, improbably, to energize him somehow.

During practice rounds this week, Mickelson cracked jokes to marshals and fellow players in a bad Scottish brogue. ("Have ye seen me ball, lad?") He needled Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker after he and Rickie Fowler beat them in a best-ball money match. ("You know, I always enjoy playing you guys.") He charmed fans each time he hit it near the gallery ("Seen a wee Callaway, have ya?") and chatted them up about the Scottish weather ("It's nothing like home, but I love it here"). All while expressing his boundless love for the Old Course and links-style golf.

"This is an amazing place, isn't it, guys?" he said to Walker, Fowler and Johnson before they posed for a picture on the Swilcan Bridge with Butch Harmon, who coaches the four men. Mickelson is also not the only one trying to make memories feel permanent. When he hit his approach out of the rough on the 16th green on Tuesday, a towering shot that knifed through the breeze, a woman from the gallery reached under the rope line when no one was looking, grabbed Mickelson's divot and tucked it in her pocket.

That he never became Tiger Woods' equal, or even a true rival, seems almost irrelevant now. If he never wins a U.S. Open to complete the career Grand Slam -- and to do it, he would have to be the oldest U.S. Open winner ever -- it seems less likely to haunt him the way it once might have.

Simple things -- like playing board games against his son, Evan; cautiously teaching his oldest daughter, Amanda, how to drive; playing catch with his daughter Sophia, a budding flag football quarterback -- bring him as much pleasure as anything. He is as comfortable in his own skin as he has been at any point in his life, and even made a point to mention it last week before the Scottish Open when he faced questions about the money laundering story for the first time.

"When I started to understand that I was more of an object to be discussed, it took out the personal element of when people say things," he said. "People are going to say things good, they are going to say things bad, they are going to say things true, they are going to say things not true. The fact is, I'm comfortable enough with who I am as a person that I don't feel like I need to comment on every little report that comes out."

Mickelson said he and his wife, Amy, laughed recently when they remembered how upset they were 20 years ago when he wasn't included in a magazine story prior to the PGA Championship listing the game's "young guns." Justin Leonard was in there, and so was David Duval, but not Mickelson. Amy was so upset about it, she even walked up to the writer at the tournament and confronted him about it.

"We look back on that and we laugh," Mickelson said. "We were so immature that we felt we had to have input and say in every little thing." His face has grown noticeably weathered in recent years. Up close, his cheeks are pink and splotchy in spots, a visible consequence that comes from having spent the past four decades walking golf courses around the world, soaking up the taxing rays of the sun. There are small bags under his eyes, and he bends at the waist to read putts instead of at the knees, a telltale sign that the years, and all those steps, are adding up.

After particularly frustrating rounds, he can look weary and drained, like a boxer limping toward his corner. His swing -- long and liquid, even in his 40s -- is virtually unchanged from the time he arrived on the scene, but he has tinkered with his putting grip more times in the past two years than most guys tinker over an entire career. Sometimes he'll even switch in the middle of a round, forever convinced the magic touch he felt at Muirfield is just waiting to be recaptured.

He has managed to reinvent himself, and continue feeling somewhat young, by embracing the role of generous mentor to the newest generation of "young guns" on the PGA Tour. It's not something anyone saw coming a decade ago, when many of his peers rolled their eyes behind his back, and grumbled privately about his arrogance.

The kids -- if we can call players in their 20s kids -- look at him differently, and he returns the sentiment. On Thursday, in an enjoyable bit of generational kismet, Mickelson happened to be preparing to tee off on the first hole just as Spieth drained a birdie putt on 18 to cap off an impressive 67. Mickelson, watching Spieth from a distance, couldn't resist offering up a small, but noticeable grin, almost like a proud dad. (Which he's literally old enough to be in Spieth's case.)

"I think he likes to take the younger guys under his wing because, to be honest, he's getting old and he doesn't want to get old," Spieth said. "He's a great mentor who likes to see the game grow, and so he grabs guys who are still trying to find their feet and forms relationships. It's not like he's giving us stuff to write in a journal. He's giving us crap and trying to be competitive. He wants us to play well, and he also wants to beat the crap out of us. But if you have questions, he has great answers. Every now and then, he'll even ask me a question about something."

Mickelson -- a notorious trash-talker during Tuesday money matches on tour -- might have been one of the first players to grasp just how strong Spieth was going to be mentally, well before he was winning majors. One of the reasons Mickelson lobbied Fred Couples hard behind the scenes for Spieth, then 20, to make the 2013 Presidents Cup team is Spieth and Steve Stricker drummed him in a practice-round money game prior to the Deutsche Bank Championship. Mickelson dug up every trick he could think of to try to rattle Spieth, but none of it worked. When Mickelson and Spieth were paired together in the final round of the tournament, Spieth shot a blistering 62. The next day, Mickelson texted Couples: "Dude, you've got to pick this guy."

"A lot of people, when he dishes it, they try to dish it back," Spieth said. "For me, I just sit there and smile and it really pisses him off. He said to me once, 'I really don't get in your head, do I?' I said 'Nah, you're pretty weak at it.' He's just a lot of fun to be around. He creates a lot of positive vibes for all of us."

For years, Mickelson has told people in his inner circle he has no interest in looking backward, in reminiscing about his past accomplishments. He remained convinced there were more majors just over the horizon. But this year, prior to The Open, he made an exception and took a trip to Muirfield, the scene of his last win, with Amy, his caddie Jim MacKay, and his longtime manager Steve Loy.

It was late at night, rainy and windy, but they bundled up and brought a bottle of wine with them instead of golf clubs. The four of them walked a few holes in the dark, laughing and telling stories, and then stood over the spot on the 18th green where Mickelson made a final birdie that sealed the most emotional victory of his career.

At one point that night, Amy Mickelson's hat blew off in the wind, and it drifted into a bunker. Mickelson insisted he be the one to climb down to retrieve it, and when he exited the bunker, he neatly raked it to perfection despite the wind and the rain. He noticed, when he was finished, that some of the members were watching from the clubhouse while finishing up their dinner.

The next day, the club manager sent Loy an email that read: "We saw what happened last night and just wanted you to know, that is an example of a true gentleman, and a true champion. We'll be pulling for him again this week."