JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Forget the fresh-scrubbed actor in the summer blockbuster, the guy with the Hollywood good looks, washboard abs, coiffed hair and teeth like gleaming piano keys.
Phil Mickelson is golf's version of Captain America.
At a time when the U.S. contingent has reached low ebb at the biggest events in golf, Mickelson has wrapped himself in the red, white and blue and assumed a paternalistic role few would have envisioned for a man of his stature in the game. OK, so he's a parent with a paddle.
He has become both mentor and tormentor to a slew of rising American hopefuls, all with the intention of toughening them up and grooming them into steely characters capable of contending in meaningful events and against those pesky internationals.
As plenty on this side of the Atlantic already know, Americans haven't won any of the past six majors, a record drought that began immediately after Mickelson won the 2010 Masters last spring. In fact, over the century-old arc of the professional game, the Yanks had never before lost more than four majors in succession, and that had happened exactly once.
Thus, a nation turns its eyes to Lefty, a man with a plan, not to mention a fairly hefty wallet fattened at the expense of his pupils. Hey, leading men at the movies get paid, too, right?
Some of the top players in the game have been through Mickelson's classroom in cleats and learned to talk about it. Many have been popping up on the game's biggest leaderboards, too, like Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jeff Overton, some of the greatest pigeons the country has recently produced.
|PGA Championship 2011|
Oops. Make that prospects.
"There's no better way to feel pressure and handle pressure, and get you ready for a final round or get you ready for a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, than playing for your own money," Mickelson explained. "I think that's the best way to feel pressure and learn to compete."
It's a trash-talking, fast-walking tutorial many would gladly pay to receive. And of course, some of them do exactly that.
The Mickelson model itself is pretty simple. On a given Tuesday, Mickelson will assemble a foursome and pick a partner for an 18-hole match against the two others. There are a few greenbacks on the line -- just enough to make 'em cringe. Imagine, say, the lowest figure with a comma.
Former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, who took Mickelson under his wing years ago in a similar context, is famous for saying, "There are only two things in this game that made me choke -- playing for cash or prestige."
Well, by taking the former out of their wallets, Mickelson is increasing the chances his minions will have a shot at the latter.
A month ago, Overton made a putt at the 18th on Tuesday at the British Open and Mickelson practically kissed him, drawing huge laughs from the gallery, which had no idea what was really happening. They had tag-teamed to beat Johnson and Fowler, who not coincidentally both finished in the top five that Sunday.
"I think it's really cool that he has taken an interest in me," said Overton, who was T38 at the British. "To be around a guy like that, with his career and what he has done, you have to pick up a few things."
Like survival instincts. Having learned from some of the masters as a young pro himself -- Mickelson played practice rounds with Azinger, Payne Stewart, Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples and others who can insert the needle with surgical precision -- he is now paying it forward.
|Dustin Johnson, a consistent major contender with zero Slam titles, played with Phil Mickelson in Tuesday's practice round. (AP)|
Still, the players under his wing feel flattered, to a man, that he has invited them into his social sanctum. Upon hearing that sentiment, Mickelson smiled broadly and said, "It doesn't matter whose cash it is, it still spends the same. ... I'm just kidding."
It's sort of like The Apprentice, with Mickelson playing the role of Trump, handing out the insults and one-liners amid the lessons. This season, he adopted a couple of top American puppies,
In fact, Bradley won the Byron Nelson a week after he first played in a Tuesdays With Lefty session. It was probably no accident, Bradley said.
"Phil, he takes a lot of guys under his wing, more than people know about," Bradley said. "He's always there to help. I played with him in a practice round at the Players, and he gave me his phone number and said text me any time. Sure enough, one of the first texts I got after I won at the Nelson was from Phil and [his caddie], which was pretty cool.
"I really, truly think he's there looking to help. He's a great guy to listen to."
Well, except when he's pouring on the trash talk so thick, his victims need a hazmat suit. But Mickelson figures handling the pressure is part of the learning curve.
"To me, the funniest things are the little jibes," Mickelson said. "I don't mind being jibed, I think they're funny. He doesn't mind dishing it, although it's tough when you keep having to pay on Tuesdays. It's hard to keep dishing it, but they find a way."
Mickelson says the matches are set up so they last the full 18 holes, ensuring everybody gets the full-length tutorial. No hall passes at this school until the final bell rings.
"Coming down the last couple holes, it gets a little quiet, and he's starting to call [his caddie] Bones over, to take a look at his putt," Bradley said. "I mean, he doesn't want to lose to us, that's for sure, just like we'd like to beat him so we can tell all our buddies. All in all, he's there to help, and just a super nice guy."
Also unbeknownst to many, Mickelson and his wife, Amy, sponsor a national program intended to help improve the performance of American grade-school kids in math and science. This is kind of the same thing for bigger, and admittedly richer, kids.
"I want guys, especially young guys who are going to be on the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup [team], to be getting in that mind frame of an 18-hole match," he said. "That's kind of what we've been doing. I think eventually it will have a little bit of a carryover effect."
Last week during their game at the Bridgestone Invitational, Mickelson called Bradley over and showed him the proper line on a particularly tricky, deceptive putt on a Firestone Country Club green. As fate would have it, Bradley faced the same putt when the tournament began, and made it. He finished T15.
But it isn't just a one-way street. Mickelson, 41, stays young by schooling kids who are, in the case of Fowler, about half his age. There's a camaraderie there that at some team cup competitions has seemed to be lacking over the recent past.
"It's just fun, it's really fun for me," Mickelson said. "We have some fun games, and quite honestly, it's not even the stakes. It is very little about that. It has more to do with the smack talk.
"I really like the gusto that guys like Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley have. They come out, they've won, they know how to close the deal, they know how to compete and they don't back down.
"I think that kind of attitude will take them a long way in this game."
For the battered sons of Uncle Sam, that's a true tonic for the troops, if not the best payoff of all.