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Lefty's lifestyle change, health ailment big surprises at PGA

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- Forget Lefty.

That nickname is as much a thing of his past as a burger with extra cheese washed down by a chocolate ice-cream milkshake.

Forever a guy who springs the occasional surprise on folks, Phil Mickelson sauntered into the 92nd PGA Championship on Tuesday and said he has been battling a case of painful psoriatic arthritis since mid-June.

Phil Mickelson can finish as low as fourth at the PGA and still take over No. 1 in the world. (Getty Images)  
Phil Mickelson can finish as low as fourth at the PGA and still take over No. 1 in the world. (Getty Images)  
Interesting, to be sure, but it wasn't remotely the most incredible thing to fall out of his mouth. Or, apparently, to fall into it, lately.

For those who have seen Mickelson destroy a buffet table over the years on the PGA Tour, he added that he has been a vegetarian for the past eight weeks. Thus, we are hereby changing his nickname to Broccoli. Or maybe Tofu.

Mickelson, the Las Vegas favorite to win this week, is part of an investment group that owns the territorial rights to a burger chain called Five Guys Burgers in Southern California and has openly promoted his product in the past. This guy put the pro in protein, so he knew that people were going to be humming about the hummus thing.

"We're working on a veggie burger," he said, drawing laughs.

It has been eight weeks since he ate anything with cheese or beef, though he might have a small piece of fish on occasion.

"Ask him, have I cheated?" Mickelson said, motioning to his publicist, who verified that Mickelson's dietary intake has been free of meat and dairy. "And the thing is, I am enjoying it."

Not as much as some enjoyed hearing it. If he had announced that he had become a Trappist Buddhist or a card-carrying Democrat, it would not have been more surprising. And this was a day for weirdness, mind you. Two hours earlier, a media guy asked Tiger Woods what it was like to be the "worst golfer in the world."

True story: A friend of mine set up an interview with Mickelson a few years ago and Lefty agreed to hold the discussion in the front of his SUV. Before the writer could climb into the cab of the vehicle, Mickelson had to remove a bunch of McDonalds hamburger wrappers from the seat.

A notorious binge eater, Mickelson, 40, can blow through two or three hamburgers in a sitting faster than some guys blow back-nine leads. Now he's a lettuce lover?

He might need his strength this week. For his ninth consecutive start, Mickelson can supplant sputtering Tiger Woods as world No. 1 this week by winning his second PGA title. Under two scenarios, he can unseat Woods by placing as low as T4, depending on where the latter finishes.

For the first time in forever, Mickelson is the pick to win this week, too. Not since the 1997 Masters has Woods not been favored at a major championship.

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Mickelson said he came up with the idea of becoming a veggie man when he read a book, hoping to ease the symptoms that had arisen when the arthritis issue first cropped up after he finished fourth at the U.S. Open in June. A few days later, his joints were so stiff during a family vacation in Hawaii that he could barely roll over, he said.

After enduring various aches and pains for several weeks, Mickelson stopped off at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for two days of testing after the British Open. They determined the cause of the malady and Mickelson has been injecting himself in the thigh with Embrel once a week. He said the treatment has worked well and that the prognosis is good that he will not have recurring symptoms down the road.

The arthritis would help explain why Mickelson had bungled so many chances to unseat Woods as world No. 1. In fact, the last time Mickelson contended on the weekend was at Pebble Beach, a couple of days before the arthritis hit him. Mickelson never mentioned the illness, however, over that span. "I could have, but I don't want excuses," he said. "And second, I don't want to discuss something when I don't know what the outcome is going to be. For five or six weeks, I was a little unsure of how this was going to affect me long term, career, what have you.

"Now that I feel confident it's not going to affect not only the rest of my career or rest of my life, but even in the short term it shouldn't have an effect. I feel a lot better about it and I'm a lot more at ease to discuss it."

As for the changes at mealtime, Mickelson knows it sounds like heresy: Him hitting the salad bar? Chewing on carrots and cauliflower?

"I know this is crazy, I know, I know," he laughed. "Can you believe that? I mean, it's not really me, but, it has been."

He plans to stick to the new diet barring a change in his health status.

"As long as I believe that there's a possibility that it will help me overall, yeah, I'll continue to do that," he said. "If it will somehow keep this in remission or stop it from coming back, yeah, I'll be able to do it.

"But I haven't been put to the real test. The real test is driving by a Five Guys and not stopping. I don't know if I can do that yet, but we'll see."

Do drive-through windows have tofu? Probably not in a place where residents are known as Cheeseheads and the cows outnumber the humans about 1,000 to one.

"I've eaten some great stuff," he said. "Foods that I have always avoided I get to eat and it's been good."

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