Phil Now Bigger Life Figure Than Tiger

The concept of a Norman Rockwell portrait should be dead in 2013 America. No longer are we supposed to search for it in sports, where scandals and deceit seemingly have erased most chances for the sentimental warm/fuzzy. Yet there it was on a foggy early evening in Scotland, where Phil Mickelson locked himself in a lengthy circular embrace with his wife and children, squeezing and sobbing and sharing a joy that came from years of hardship, pain, fear and, looking back, collective resilience.

“That moment is a picture I’ll put on a wall and remember the feeling when I see it,” he said minutes later after his victory at the British Open, as ESPN showed him the video clip.

When we see Mickelson plastered with corporate logos — Forbes says he made $44 million in endorsements last year as the world’s seventh-highest-paid athlete — we forget that his wife, Amy, overcame breast cancer after a long battle. And that he had to guide her and their three kids through the ordeal, a hellish time for a wife and husband even when they have substantial means and all the finest doctors. We forget that he flew back and forth from the U.S. Open in Philadelphia — 10 hours in the air, little sleep for his first-round tee time — so he could attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation in San Diego. We forget that Phil is a PTA-certified father who has two jobs of paramount importance, family and golf, with little doubt which is Job One.

“We do the best we can,” he said of his family in the same ESPN interview. “I think it’s important, to be successful, to want to have good balance between family life and professional life. They’ve been very supportive.”

The Muirfield snapshot was profound in more ways than one. In the context of sports and legacy, it sent the definitive image once never thought possible: Mickelson now has become a bigger life figure than Tiger Woods, surpassing him in grandeur and aura for all the right reasons. I don’t care that Woods has won 14 major championships and Mickelson just won his fifth. I don’t care about career victories, money totals, talent, yards off the tee and who owns the career grand slam. I don’t care that Woods continues to look like an Adonis while Mickelson, though in better shape, still has an Everyman look to him and fights psoriatic arthritis. Yes, I still care very much that Woods helped break color barriers in a country-club sport and shamed the lingering racists at the 1997 Masters, but in the 16 years since, the winds have blown wildly across the golfing landscape. If the president of the United States was to honor one of them tomorrow — and he just might, knowing how Barack Obama loves his White House sports ceremonies — the invitee is going to be Mickelson.

He would be saluted for his perseverance, in golf and life.

As opposed to Tiger, who would be saluted for … uh, exactly what lately?

I know, I know, we can’t be too sure that we REALLY KNOW Phil Mickelson or anyone else we’d love to call a hero. Wasn’t he apologizing earlier this year for complaining about the new tax laws, how he might have to flee California? There always is skepticism about athletes with so-called Squeaky Clean Family Reputations, but do yourself a favor in this regard: Until there’s actual evidence, such as a smashed-up SUV in a driveway, assume those are lies spread by enemies with agendas. I’ve seen too much proof that Mickelson indeed is the humbled, appreciative fellow who worships his family and truly wants to please when he grins and waves at his adoring galleries, then spends entire hours signing autographs for them. For all he has been through in his private life and profession, he could be a grouch who never engages with the people. In fact, he is the antithesis of a grump, having channeled his emotional storms of the last decade in sunny ways. He has helped his family heal and be well. And he has U-turned a career once filled with big-moment failures into a series of conquests that, suddenly, appear larger in meaning than all of Woods’ majors.

At 43, when he was supposed to be finished contending in majors, Mickelson right now is the biggest threat to win each time one rolls around. Age only has made him hungrier; not long ago, he built a practice area in his backyard. Remember when we used to chide him for his 0-for-42 futility streak in majors before finally breaking through at the 2004 Masters? He now has won five in nine years, one fewer than Woods over the last decade, and forged what was thought to be his impossible dream: winning the claret jug, for the first time in 20 tries, on a links course expected to be a permanent bugaboo for a southern California native presumed not to have the requisite links game. He did so with a closing round that goes down among the finest ever in a golfing major. And he sealed victory with a daring that used to be his biggest flaw, such as at Winged Foot in 2006, when he turned victory on the 72nd hole into a wayward shot off a merchandise tent.

“I am such an idiot,” he said that day.

Today, he’s the toast of a nation starving for any hero.

“I don’t care either way how I got this trophy — I got it,” Mickelson told the media in Scotland. “And it just so happened to be with one of the best rounds of my career, which is really the way I’ve played my entire career. I’ve always tried to go out and get it. I don’t want anybody to hand it to me. I want to go out and get it.

“This is such an accomplishment for me because I just never knew if I’d be able to develop the game to play links golf effectively. To play the best round arguably of my career, to putt better than I’ve ever putted, to shoot the round of my life … it feels amazing. This is my greatest feeling I’ve had in the game.”

Yes, resilience. Only a few weeks earlier, he’d left Merion bitterly after losing his best chance to win a U.S. Open. He could have faded away for the summer, but instead, he unloaded his angst during a preplanned Montana family getaway and then focused on heading to Scotland early, practicing diligently and winning the Scottish Open while Amy and the kids vacationed in Spain. When they joined him, they banded as one and willed his greatest victory.

“You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it. And after losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south,” Mickelson told the media. “But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career. And I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year, and some potential great play. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I worked a little bit harder.”

So, why not another major or two? He’s among the favorites in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, but I’m also referring to the remaining hole on his resume: the U.S. Open. He has finished second an excruciating six times in that event, but if he can carry the momentum of peak play into next summer’s Open at Pinehurst, he’ll further elevate himself in the pantheon. The only men to win the career Grand Slam are Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen.

“I think that if I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that’s the sign of the complete great player. I’m a leg away. And it’s been a tough leg for me,” Mickelson said. “Those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light.”

We already see him with a new radiance, just as we continue to view Woods in the darkness of his continuing struggles. He hasn’t won a major in more than five years, since his hobbling U.S. Open triumph at Torrey Pines, and he clearly is laboring under the pressure of his own 0-for-17 streak. Going on 38, with new injuries surfacing all the time, Tiger knows his chances of passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors are dwindling. In his last seven majors, he hasn’t shot better than 70 in a final round, only feeding the idea that a sex scandal, injuries and midlife have scarred him mentally and completely erased his previous invincibility.

As always, he tries to emphasize the positive. “I’ve won 14 (non-majors) in that spell where I haven’t won since Torrey. I’ve been in there. It’s not like I’ve lost my card and I’m not playing out here,” Woods told the British Open media. “So I’ve won some tournaments in that stretch and I’ve been in probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win during that stretch. I just haven’t done it yet.”

While we never would put anything past Tiger, the facts are these: He needs five major wins to pass Nicklaus, and only Hogan has won more than four majors after his 37th birthday. He’s great in a lot of non-majors, feeding the argument that he chokes in the majors. It’s nice he has a new girlfriend in ski bunny Lindsey Vonn and nicer that his kids and ex-wife apparently approve of her, according to gossip reports. Truth is, Eldrick Woods is on the wrong side of a stunning fate reversal in the annals of American culture.

He must bow down to King Phil now. And maybe stare at that Mickelson family photo for a while, wondering where and why everything changed for two men.