D'Angelo: Phil Mickelson still a fan favorite even as his game remains inconsistent at best

Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH GARDENS — When the most decorated and beloved player in the field is struggling to stay in the top 100 in the world, it says a lot more about that player’s ability to maintain his popularity than his game.

But Phil Mickelson remains an attraction on the golf course, whether the field includes 18 of the top 20 in the world or two of the top 20, which is the case this week at the Honda Classic where circumstances beyond the tournament’s control has decimated this year’s field.

Phil Mickelson watches his drive on the ninth hole during the first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens on Thursday.

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But then there is Phil, whose trip to the Porta Potty after his tee shot on No. 14 was even cheered as he hustled to catch up to his group.

The 50-year-old Mickelson spent more time than he would like exploring the natural beauty of the Champion with a 1-over 71 Thursday. When nature called on the 14th hole, fans waited for Mickelson to pass before they were allowed to cross the fairway.

“Sorry for still keeping you here,” he said to his followers as he rushed to catch up to his playing partners. No one complained. In fact, his apology was met with cheers and a few chants of “Let’s go Phil.”

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After all, it wasn’t Shane Lowry or Zach Johnson they were there to see, although if they wanted to witness more consistent golf, they would have paid more attention to Phil’s playing partners, both of whom shot 67.

Mickelson is playing in his first Honda in five years and the first since it was reported he is building a home on Jupiter Island. He must have felt pretty good at the turn — we would know for sure, except the five-time major winner declined to speak with the media following his round. Mickelson, who started on No. 10, had birdies on Nos. 12 and 15 when he rolled in a 34-footer and was tied atop the leaderboard at 2-under. He gave it back on the next hole, and after finishing the Bear Trap (Nos. 15-17) at even par, Mickelson birdied the par-5 18th.

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A 33 on the back nine is something to celebrate. Easily the more difficult nine on the Champion — mostly because of the challenging Bear Trap — the average score was about three shots higher on the day.

So, Phil was probably thinking of at least matching that on the front nine and sitting near the top of the leaderboard.

But the round was a snapshot of Phil’s season … two club-lengths forward and two club-lengths backward. That back nine was followed by a 38 on the front nine that included a bogey on No. 4 and a double bogey on No. 6.

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The Honda is Mickelson’s 10th start of the season and he has alternated between playing on the weekend and missing the cut since finishing 44th at the Safeway Open. That inconsistency led to Mickelson falling out of the top 100 last week (he was No. 101 entering The Players Championship), ending a streak of 1,425 consecutive weeks inside the top 100. Before you pull out the calculator, that’s 28 years.

Consider that four players in the current top 10 weren’t born when Mickelson started that streak with his August 1993 victory in The International. Justin Thomas was 4 months old.

The gallery gathers to watch Phil Mickelson at the eighth hole during Thursday's first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens.

“It was a cool run,” Mickelson said last week.

Thomas was asked before his victory at The Players if he envisioned another 28-year streak inside the top 100 for anyone. He rattled off several possibilities including himself, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and young guns Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, but in the end said, “You never know.”

Mickelson jumped back up to No. 99 following his 35th- place finish at The Players. He addressed his woes during the week at TPC Sawgrass, saying he feels fine physically, but the issue is he’s been “mentally making the game harder than it is. I just need to fix that, just think a little bit better.”

Phil Mickelson watches his putt on the first hole during the first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. Thursday, March 18, 2021.

And the Champion is one of those courses that take a lot of thinking.

Mickelson is all over the course these days. His tee shot could land in straw or it could find the fairway. If he hits the fairway, his second shot could disappear into deep rough or land on the green. Once on the green, he might sink a 34-footer as he did on No. 15 or he might run a 5-footer two feet past the hole as he did on No. 4.

“I have felt for a while that the parts of my game have been much better than the sum,” Mickelson said last week after making the cut. “Mistakes here and there or just areas that are lacking some focus and so forth, just little areas I need to clean up.”

And clean up fast when it comes to this week, or the pattern will continue.