By Dan Bernstein
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) — After completing his sparkling final round at what would be his first victory at the Open Championship, Phil Mickelson admitted that he had a difficult time explaining how he felt about one of the best performances of his brilliant career.
I get it. I’m having a similar problem trying to figure out why I don’t find myself pulling for him as much as I probably should.
It makes little sense for me to care about Tiger Woods’ performance in these majors as disproportionately as I do, if I really am true to my reasoning – the pure fan in me rooting for greatness to be great in the moments that matter most.
There is no lack of awareness of just how historically good Mickelson is, no dismissive perspective of him as somehow embodying an anti-Tiger identity, and no active distaste for him whatsoever. Yet his success lacks the kind of visceral connection provided by that of Woods – the difference between polite golf-clap and triumphant fist-pump, or just paying that extra bit of attention to a leaderboard.
Not to mention that anyone not liking Lefty has to put in real effort to do so. He’s generally pleasant on the course, flashing an easy, vapid smile as his default facial expression while always acknowledging supportive galleries and signing countless autographs for individual fans.
His off-course life is unremarkable, save for his well-publicized devotion to his wife and kids. This attention – to Amy’s battle with breast cancer, his wearing of a pager on the course before the birth of his daughter, and his choice to attend and eighth-grade graduation instead of practice and rest up for the US Open – has struck some grumblers as mere public-relations fluff, too much fawning over someone doing what any good husband or father should.
Perhaps it is. But if this means anything, contrast it with our guy Tiger. His legendary focus had always excused a detachment during competition that can border on surliness, and bad shots routinely result in profane outbursts into open microphones. His image away from the game evolved from that of a parentally-engineered child prodigy to all-American success story, only to sink into a swamp of busty bimbos selling sordid sex tales. What has emerged from all this is not so much the classic redemption narrative, but an unsatisfying third act that does nothing but tease those waiting for him to resume the chase for Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins.
And here’s Mickelson playing his best golf, balancing his appealing penchant for high-risk decisions with the dazzling array of shots that back it up. We’re supposed to love the gamblers and gunslingers, particularly those who can win like that in this humbling, gentleman’s game.
Yet my eyes remain on Woods, with something palpable still changing for the worse when he falls out of contention. The weight of age and physical deterioration looms ever greater with each missed opportunity to add to his list of titles, and it’s both starkly human and notably sad when transcendent talent appears to be eroding before our eyes into something still not inarguably the best ever.
That continued disappointment after many years of feeling part of something grandly significant must overwhelm what should be fair appreciation for another all-time great at his sport.
Objectively, Phil Mickelson has done nothing to earn anything less.
From me, he likely deserves more.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.