Phil Mickelson Leaves Behind Golf to Focus on Ailing Wife Amy
Suddenly, Tiger Woods is not the most feared opponent anymore.
Suddenly, the victory Phil Mickelson so desperately wants has nothing to do with a green jacket or Claret Jug.
Life has a way of reminding us that professional sport is not inhabited by one-dimensional millionaires, for whom the skies are always blue and the news is always good. They are people, and their days can turn as dark as anyone's.
The bigger they are, the more jarring the headline.
Usually, real life comes to the sports page in two ways. One is self-inflicted trouble - as Michael Vick leaves prison in pre-dawn darkness, headed for home confinement and a construction job at $10 an hour.
The other is personal tragedy. Phil Mickelson will not be playing golf for some time. Amy - Mrs. Mickelson for 13 years and mother of three - has breast cancer. More tests to come, "major surgery" pending, the news release mentions.
Anyone who has seen a loved one endure serious illness - and that means nearly all of us - understands what happens next. Your world shrinks. Your priorities change. Lots of things out there that used to matter suddenly don't. A couple in their 30s would never expect the terrifying words of "breast cancer" - and not 36 PGA tour victories nor all the prize money in the world can make it easier.
For years, he has sought to be Woods' most viable rival, as the universe of golf cheered them both. Remember the roars at Augusta in April. But who cares at the moment?
His game has long been a matter of debate. Sometimes, his gambles seem too rash, his Sunday manner too unreliable. That seemed to be important at the majors. But not Wednesday.
Now he is not Phil Mickelson, two-time Masters champion. He is a husband who must help his wife in a dire fight. A golfer is out there alone, accustomed to making his own fate. But now the Mickelson family will need help from strangers. Lots and lots of help.
The Mickelson story that comes to mind at a time such as this is the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, with Phil in contention for his first major, and Amy back in Arizona ready any day to deliver their first child.
Mickelson played that weekend with a beeper, prepared to drop his clubs and race from the course at the first sign of labor. It would not matter, he repeatedly said, if he were leading when the beeper sounded. The leader board, even a U.S. Open leader board, was a poor substitute for fatherhood. He would be gone.
Turned out, he lost on No. 18 Sunday when Payne Stewart rolled in a 15-foot putt. The next day, Amy delivered a daughter named Amanda.
"That's just really the cycle of life," he said that weekend. "As I get older, different things become important to me in my life."
Cycle of life? Less than five months later, Payne Stewart was dead, killed in a plane accident. And now, nearly on the 10th anniversary of that U.S. Open, his something very different has become important to Mickelson.
Back in April, at his pre-Masters press conference, Mickelson talked of how hard he had worked at solidifying his game. "I don't want there to be any uncertainties," he said.
Golf is hardly ever like that, and life never is. When he returns to the game - imagine the warmth from the gallery that day - he will be different. He'll have to be. But for now, he has no need for a hot putter. What he needs is hope. This is the sobering moment when a champion becomes just like you and me. Nothing star-struck about cancer.