Review: “Phil,” by Alan Shipnuck

The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar
By Alan Shipnuck
249 pages. Avid Reader Press. $30.

Tiger Woods played golf, in his heyday, with the authority of an undertaker. He was all about aloofness, discipline and control. He was beautiful to watch, with forearms like hydraulic pumps, but not quite a member of humanity.

Phil Mickelson, his great rival, was and is all too human, a fact underscored again and again (and again) in Alan Shipnuck’s new book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.”

Fast-food wrappers spill out of his car. His “perma-grin and goofy thumbs-up,” Shipnuck writes, precede him wherever he goes. He’s up for any contest, especially if you’ll wager on it. His motto could be Ken Kesey’s happy line: “If I’m going to skate, I’m going to race.”

Woods plays cautiously; Mickelson goes for it on almost every shot. So often he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, yet he seemed to be, most of the time, enjoying himself hugely.

Shipnuck can’t help tracing the arc of the Woods-Mickelson rivalry. Mickelson is five years older and seemed the heir apparent to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. When Woods arrived Mickelson must have felt like Carl Perkins first sighting Elvis.

This biography has a different mission, though. Shipnuck, the author of several books and a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine, is interested in Mickelson’s reputed dark side and why it keeps threatening to pop out from behind his carefully constructed nice-guy facade.

Why was it that GQ magazine, in 2006, named Mickelson No. 8 on its list of most-hated athletes? The words GQ used included “fraud,” “preening” and “insincere.”

“Phil” has already made headlines and climbed Amazon’s best-seller list. When news circulated that Mickelson was involved in a plan backed by Saudi Arabia to create a circuit that would compete with the PGA Tour, Shipnuck had a devastating interview waiting in his notes.

Rather than hang onto it, as reporters often do these days, he published Mickelson’s comments in February, three months before “Phil” was due out. Here’s the quote about the Saudis that went around the world, the one that made Mickelson appear to have an A.T.M. where his moral compass should be:

“We know they killed [the journalist Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson apologized. He said the comments were off the record. But the blowback sent him off the tour and into hiding. He lost sponsors. The Saudi tour collapsed. He’s reportedly grown a beard and seems to be out soul-searching. (Maybe he’ll run into Will Smith.) Sports loves a redemption story. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be back soon.

“Phil” is not a drive-by character assassination. Shipnuck generally admires Mickelson, and takes note of his philanthropy, his sunny disposition, his deadpan wit, his many acts of random kindness and the fact that he’s not a sore loser.

Shipnuck digs more deeply into Mickelson’s gambling than anyone has so far. His addiction has led him to grow tight with dubious characters. He bets on football so heavily, Mickelson told a friend, that his bets “might move the line.” His gambling losses totaled more than $40 million from 2010 to 2014, according to documents reviewed by one of Shipnuck’s sources. The author therefore wonders if Mickelson needed that Saudi money.

Alan ShipnuckCredit…Abigail Shipnuck

Mickelson was born in San Diego in 1970. His father was a commercial airline pilot and a golf fanatic. The family had a big backyard with a putting green and room for 40-yard pitches. Mickelson practiced deep into the night. “There was no swing analysis, no computer spitting out spin rates,” Shipnuck writes, “just a very curious boy digging the game’s secrets out of the dirt.”

By the time he was in high school, Mickelson was a networker and a schmoozer, Shipmuck writes, albeit a bit of a nerd. He didn’t drink; he wore garish Sansabelt slacks and polo shirts with their collars popped and elaborate belt buckles and visors.

He attended Arizona State University, where his team won the national title. His tee shots stayed in the air forever, people said, as if they were Frisbees. Mickelson was a psychology major, and he likes mental gamesmanship.

This seems creepy only once, when he talks about wooing the woman who would become his wife, Amy Mickelson. He took her to a suspenseful movie, he says, and at a critical moment rubbed her hand so that “she would displace her fear as arousal or attraction for me. And that’s how I was able to, when I didn’t have as much to work with, land such a gem.”

Mickelson is right-handed but plays lefty; he compares it to hitting a backhand in tennis. For a long time he was dubbed the BPNTHWAM — best player never to have won a major. Later he was FIGJAM — I’m good, just ask me (preceded by an unprintable interjection). Shipnuck reports that Mickelson spent time working with military snipers, to better his focus and mental discipline.

“Phil” is well written in spots, but mostly not so much. The imagery can screech: A man is as “tough as a two-dollar steak,” a new course management system goes over “like a fart in church” and so forth. The middle third bogs down in descriptions — “Goosen bogeyed 14, while Mickelson birdied 13 and 15” — of match after match. Still, the book was, for me, an OK day-waster.

The Saudi comment notwithstanding, it left me liking Mickelson more than I did going into it. He may sometimes be conceited and two-faced; the golf writer John Garrity refers to Mickelson’s “Eddie Haskell grin,” a cultural reference that I had to look up (Eddie was the smarmy troublemaker on “Leave It to Beaver”), which seems about right.

Is his willingness to sign autographs forever, for example, the mark of a generous spirit or a “shameless brand-building exercise”? Shipnuck considers arguments both ways.

Golf turns people into bores, in my experience, but Mickelson does not seem like one. He’s convivial, and his conversation is not always about golf.

He gets into comic scrapes. He once put away so many sauerkraut balls the day before a match, Nick Faldo tells Shipnuck, that he had to sprint to the bathroom after his final putt.

“Gameness is a beautiful quality in a person,” Lorrie Moore has written, and Mickelson seems perpetually game for anything, even though he must know by now that this has cost him.

He’s a master of getting himself out of a bunker. He’s in one now.