A new year begins, Phil Mickelson still PGA Tour first, but hears Champions' call

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – “Philip Rivers is the Phil Mickelson of the NFL! ‘Nobody has more wins, completions, attempts, passing yards, or touchdowns without making a Super Bowl appearance,’” Rich Eisen, NFL Network host.

Whatever prompted Eisen to connect the two Philips – Lefty’s given name is Philip Alfred Mickelson – in a tweet four years ago, it seemed strangely apropos on a gloomy hump day in the Coachella Valley.

San Diego Chargers quarterback Rivers announced his retirement on Wednesday after 17 years in the NFL. “It’s just time,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. After 29 seasons on the PGA Tour Mickelson, a scorned Chargers fan who clings to his San Diego loyalties, didn’t follow Rivers into retirement but he did crack the Golden Years door, however slightly.

Like Rivers, Lefty is the prototypical first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s ninth on the all-time victory list with 44 titles, has the second most top-10 finishes (since 1980) with 196, and is the last player to win a Tour event as an amateur 30 years ago.

Like Rivers, Lefty’s career omissions are glaring. He’s never won the money title, a FedExCup or been No. 1 in the world ranking. He’s also never won a U.S. Open or the career Grand Slam.

The American Express: Full-field tee times | Full coverage

Big he has won five of the Big Ones and unlike Rivers, Lefty isn’t finished.

A year ago at The American Express, where Mickelson has stepped in as host, he had no interest in his looming 50th birthday in June and how that might impact whether he focuses on the PGA Tour or the PGA Tour Champions. “Hit bombs,” was his strangely vague response.

That plan remains unchanged. The PGA Tour and all its trappings still call as does the delayed Ryder Cup, which would qualify as a genuine longshot at this juncture, but a southpaw’s got to dream.

“I’ve actually had a good offseason where I haven’t had as much time off as I normally would take because it’s been so much shorter. I feel like I’ve made a few good strides and I’m excited to start the year and see if I’m able to continue playing at the highest level,” he said Wednesday at PGA West. “If I am, I’m going to really try to play more events on the PGA Tour and make a push hopefully for the Ryder Cup.”

A similar “Tour-first” outlook was cut short last year by COVID-19 and a pandemic that halted play for the better part of three months. When Lefty returned from quarantine, he had a different outlook. After being bounced from the playoffs after The Northern Trust, Mickelson played his first PGA Tour Champions event, which he won. Two months later he won his second start at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic.

Those over-50 starts were bookends for a T-44, missed cut, tie for 76th and missed cut on the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson ‘excited to get back and compete’

“What I really enjoyed was the ability to play, compete, be in contention, and to play against guys that I have known for 30-plus years and compete against them again and see a lot of friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, and golf courses that are more fun to play and are not built to beat you up the way a lot of PGA Tour courses are, and rightfully so,” Mickelson said of the senior experience.

Lefty was effusive in his praise for the PGA Tour Champions, comparing those events to the tournaments he played on the PGA Tour in the 1990’s, when he first turned pro and was able to play with his signature abandon.

“It has me looking at it a little bit differently as though the enjoyment I get out of the game of golf is to play and compete, have opportunities to win, go for it, try to make birdies, and play aggressive,” he said. “The Champions Tour allowed me to do all of that, and so I certainly am looking at that.”

If all that sounds like a man bound for greener pastures know that any potential plan to relocate to the over-50 circuit depends entirely on how Mickelson fares on the PGA Tour, and specifically how he performs the next few weeks on the West Coast where he’s always played his best.

Lefty’s 2020 was highlighted by just a pair of top-10 finishes – at Pebble Beach in February and in Memphis in August – and a collection of otherwise forgettable performances. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open, was at the bottom of the field at the PGA Championship (T-71) and was a disappointing 55th at the Masters.

If the swagger of “hit bombs” is gone from Lefty’s assessment know that 2020 had that impact on many, and as he closes in on his 51st birthday it seems time, which remains unbeaten in sports, has started to register with Mickelson.

“If I don’t play well early on, I’ll start to re-evaluate things and maybe play a few more events on the Champions Tour because what’s fun for me is competing, getting in contention, and trying to win tournaments,” he said.

Mickelson isn’t following Rivers into retirement but after years of playing the role of reluctant senior he finally seems to be interested in what the next chapter might be.