x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Phil Mickelson has lived up to the hype of 1992

Phil Mickelson arrived on the golfing scene with a bang and has secured four major titles.

Phil Mickelson gets a feel for the National Course ahead of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. Mike Young / The National
Phil Mickelson gets a feel for the National Course ahead of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. Mike Young / The National

Return now briefly to the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach. Cup your ear. Hear the sea lions barking.

Notice the debuting professional who could not eat much breakfast. Notice he carries extra food. Notice he is 22 and so nervous that he … well, he birdies the first hole and shoots 68.

"I can look back on this day 20 or 30 years from now and say I birdied my first hole in my professional debut," this Phil Mickelson says on that Thursday in June. "I had a 68 in that round, and it was the US Open Championship."

He seems wiser than 22. He notes that the course seems to fit so snugly around the cliffs that it seems as if it has been there since the cliffs themselves. He remembers to ladle some due praise upon his hosts, the sea lions.

"Special animals," he calls them.

To an event that Dr Gil Morgan led on Saturday before Tom Kite won on a demanding Sunday, Mickelson toted the heavy baggage of promise.

Already he had won a PGA Tour event, in Tucson, as an amateur, in 1991. He had remained at Arizona State University to finish his degree and hoard a huge stash of college-golf laurels.

Sane observers cooed. The words "most promising American golfer since Nicklaus" turned up in a sequence. So did the words "best left-hander since Bob Charles". At Pebble Beach, Gary Hallberg, his first-day playing partner, said: "He could be something very special."

A fresh rookie, he played Pebble Beach trailed by cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, parents. Well now, last June, the fresh Abu Dhabi tourist Mickelson - entered in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship beginning today - went and turned 40, a matter worthy of both sheer horror and calm assessment.

The former came as another of those sports factoids about a familiar person that shouts out time's perpetual hurry. The latter came with some typical sports questions.

Has Mickelson justified that way-back-when introduction with the proper noun "Nicklaus" thrown in?

Answer: absolutely.

Does Mickelson represent anything else, sports-wise?

Answer: absolutely. He embodies the untold risk people take when they become professional athletes and do their business on television.

In that first sense, Mickelson has won four major tournaments and 46 events on various tours. He has maintained a hard, hard consistency reflected in a ranking that just won't plummet. It shows in his astounding 31 top-10 finishes and 20 top-fives in majors.

People can look at the four majors, say reasonably he should have won more and then call the four unsatisfying. People can be wrong.

People can get a false sense of the task just because one player who came on four years after Mickelson happened to win 14 so far. As a favourite golf pundit put it so succinctly and understatedly about majors: "They're hard to win."

They are so hard that nobody ever should win them, and winning four constitutes towering achievement.

Reaching a fat four after years of tortured contention that rendered aching his pursuit - can still see his gutted face in the locker room in furnace-hot Tulsa at the 2001 US Open, just for one - only heaps on more appeal.

At the same time, his record would have an even more burnished, gaudier look - more completeness - had he parred just a single No 18 at Winged Foot on a turbulent Sunday in 2006. He famously arrived at the 72nd hole with the one-shot lead and the shining chance at a still-elusive US Open title and a mind-boggling third consecutive major title.

Of course, he wound up intersecting with a corporate hospitality tent, a tree and a bunker. Thereby did he both err and unearth the game's spectacular meanness.

Therein lies the risk that counterbalances the salaries and the too-envied lives of all professional athletes.

No matter how excellent, they always teeter above the danger of a basic human gaffe that will cling to their names the way that single hole might always attach itself to Mickelson's.

Sometimes you wonder how they ever banish their waking nightmares. And how did he fare on the Friday after that Thursday at Pebble Beach? He shot 81 and missed the cut.

He took a triple-bogey on the par-4 No 3 after knocking it to within 20 yards after two shots. "My mind was wandering," he said.

And he added: "I have rounds where I just go through the motions."

As he knew well by then, he had chosen arguably the most merciless of games.

He went on to soar generally and beautifully at a game that does not trade in forgiveness.

And he went on to suffer episodically at a game so disinterested in forgiveness that it will punish somebody eternally for one measly hole.

cculpepper@thenational.ae