Lovable Lefty: Mickelson a hit at Greenbrier
This year's Greenbrier Classic contains dozens of interesting story lines, subplots and people.
From 39-time winner Tom Watson choosing to play to the arrival of players like Retief Goosen and Anthony Kim, from changes to the course to returning favorites such as Sergio Garcia, John Daly, Ricky Barnes and J.B. Holmes, there's a lot to talk about.
But make no mistake about it, this year's Classic turned West Virginia on its ear when it was announced that Phil Mickelson would roam the Old White TPC's fairways this week. Lefty's arrival Wednesday was a jam-packed reminder.
Mickelson hit the practice range at The Greenbrier before taking to the course for a pro-am at noon. The grandstands, sidewalks and pretty much every yard of space within view of the practice tees were crowded to the max with excited fans.
But as it turns out, Mickelson and his family seem to be as glad to be at The Greenbrier as the people are to have him.
"We got in on Monday and the kids had a great day yesterday doing all the things here at The Greenbrier," Mickelson said. "Bungee swinging, laser tag, pools, it's really a special place and we're excited to be here. I heard so many good things about last year's tournament and I'm glad to be able to be here and play."
Mickelson is far and away the highest-ranked player in the Classic field, coming in at No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking and clearing Retief Goosen by 14 spots. He also has 39 wins on Tour, including four majors, and a slew of top-five and top-10 finishes.
But there is something else that makes Mickelson endearing to so many fans. Quite simply, he has repeatedly overcome adversity.
There is the fact that Mickelson had 17 top-10 finishes in majors before finally winning the 2004 Masters. It was like the Buffalo Bills finally winning a Super Bowl title, and if there's anything America loves, it's a redemption story.
But on a more personal note, there is the struggle of his wife Amy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, and there was Mickelson and his family fighting through it.
Mickelson said this week's Classic will be just as much about his family as it is golf.
"Having an environment here that's so family friendly makes it easier," Mickelson said. "Especially when they've been able to travel with me this summer. And the fact that this place is so fun for them, it's an easy fit.
"My daughters are excited about the falconry. I don't know where in the world you can do that. We'll do some whitewater rafting, too. It just really is a fun place, so the golf is a bonus."
The golf is what people are here to see, and whether it's good or bad, Mickelson's game is always entertaining. He is a player with all the tools - a vicious driver, a world-class short game and solid long irons.
But unnecessary risks and mistakes have often undermined his results, as was the case in this year's British Open. Mickelson had his full game on display in the final round, firing a 5-under-par 30 on the front nine to put a lot of pressure on eventual winner Darren Clarke. Mickelson's back nine made Clarke's win much more comfortable, as he gave back three shots with a 38.
Still, Lefty left Europe encouraged.
"I had a good tournament there at the British and I felt like I kind of turned a corner for me in that I'm starting to put things together slowly," Mickelson said. "[I'm able to] be a little more patient, enjoy my time on the course, and be more creative hitting shots again. It was a good week for me for that and I'm excited about this next three-week stretch."
That stretch includes next week's Bridgestone Invitational and the following week's PGA Championship.
While Mickelson was not at The Greenbrier last year and played his first round there Wednesday afternoon, he finds the Old White TPC course suited to his style of play.
"I like old-style golf courses, courses that are fun to play, courses that you can make birdies on, you can be aggressive on, you can recover if you make a mistake," he said. "This course seems to suit that. It looks like it's a fun, enjoyable golf course to play while still challenging."
If Mickelson's lack of course knowledge turns out to be a problem, he won't have to look far for help. He is paired with The Greenbrier's golf professional emeritus, Tom Watson, and 2010 champion Stuart Appleby in the marquee trio of the first two rounds.
Mickelson said Appleby's exploits last year were impressive, and that he actually enjoyed the often-criticized low rounds from a year ago.
"Not too many guys have shot 59, and then to do it in the final round is pretty cool," Mickelson said of Appleby. "So to have him back here, I'll probably watch a little bit as to how he plays this course.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with guys scoring low. We're supposed to be the best at what we do, so I don't think it's an issue."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pr...@wvgazette.com.