PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- On the surface, you want to throw the kid a life raft. You want to build a crust around him to fend off the inevitable slings and arrows of the PGA Tour. You wish to guard this innocent child with the long brown face, the big white smile and deep dimples and boyish zing. You want to flash cue cards to him when he faces the prying press, save him from stumbling thoughts, awkward statements, self-embarrassment.
Well, you may sheath your protective sword. Young Mr. Phil Mickelson will be just fine. Your son-in-law should have such fruitful prospects.
SCENE: Here comes young Mickelson to his first big-time news conference, here on the eve of his very first professional tournament, which just happens to be the granddaddy of all golf competition. With the normal kid, nerves would be jumping out of his skin, his tongue tied in awful knots, his gaze should be downward, his feet would shuffle.
"This is something new to me, these big press conferences, so I ask you to bear with me," he says, flashing a smile that would melt quartz. "First, I would like to make a few statements and observations and then throw it open for questions." Another big smile.
First news conference? Heck, this was an old pro, facing the press in the rose garden, speaking ad lib with word selection of a Winston Churchill, with the ease of a talk-show host. His thoughts were tightly organized and just as tightly presented. Occasionally he would throw in a polysyllabic word that caused audience eyebrows to cross. And he never took a deep breath, never searched for a word.
The content of Mickelson's opening address wasn't just the blather of a salesman or a public relations major. Mickelson just turned 22, yet when he talks golf, he uses terms normally found in a Jack Nicklaus lecture. Only with the kid, it's Mr. Nicklaus and Mr. Palmer and Mr. Watson.
He was a sports psychology major at Arizona State, where he won three NCAA championships, plus one U.S. Amateur. He explains something called "the inverted U theory," which measures human output by interest arousal or something terribly deep like that.
Remember, this lad won a PROFESSIONAL tournament, the Tucson Open, when he was a college junior. There was immediate speculation that he was wasting time and money by remaining in college. Remember that Jimmy Demaret once estimated that Ben Crenshaw was wasting $1 million a year by staying a scholastic amateur. So Ben skipped his final season at Texas, after winning three NCAA titles. Mickelson stayed put and he surely is the most promising amateur to join the pros since Crenshaw.
"I wasn't ready to turn pro a year and a half ago," he said, referring to his Tucson victory. "There were so many things to learn. I had to learn to cope with the stress of outside pressures, of engagements and meetings. I wanted to prepare myself better. I wanted to think of long-term ideals, rather than short successes."
The tall lefthander doesn't come across as cocky. Rather, he seems tremendously eager, with boundless enthusiasm. And there's nothing juvenile about his business acumen. His agent, Rocky Hambric of Dallas, has arranged a whopping contract with the Yonex club people, said to be worth at least $5 million over five years. The kid apologetically refuses to discuss financial arrangements.
He may have a million in his jeans, but he still flies on his father's special rate as a retired airline pilot. That's how he will travel to Europe for a try at the British Open.
Already Mickelson is subject to doubters who search for a clay foot. He seems almost too good to believe. Good, meaning poise, control, manners, education, language, humor, whatever.
Mickelson said he was a bit tense yesterday. He had trouble eating breakfast, so he stuck a couple apples and a banana in his bag. First tournament as pro, legendary course, high expectations, gallery full of relatives, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins. He was so nervous, he birdied his very first professional hole. And went on to shoot 68, 4-under-par, right up there with the big boys. Poor little naive, defenseless kid.