Phil By Alan Shipncuk Book Review
Phil: The Rip Roaring Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar
by Alan Shipnuck
Teachers’ Comments: Entertaining, enlightening and ultimately quite even-handed
I will confess to being a Phil Mickelson fan. I have enjoyed watching him play because he seems to enjoy playing. There’s always a smile and that goofy thumbs up. He acknowledges the fans.
Tiger, on the other hand, appears to me as a joyless, cold-hearted assassin. I never got the feeling that he liked playing golf as much as he enjoyed crushing his opponents.
Given that, and the somewhat related events that led to Phil’s disappearance from the public, I was prepared to dislike Alan Shipnuck’s Phil: The Rip Roaring Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar. My guess was that it would be a hatchet job on one of my favorite players.
Instead, what I found is a very even-handed and enjoyable biography. The book begins with a story about Phil threating Shipnuck with fisticuffs but ends with a very sweet image of Phil and Amy at the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.
In between, Shipnuck paints the picture of a mercurial and contradictory personality.
Phil regularly drops hundred-dollar bills as tips and has donated huge sums of money to charity. That same big tipper, however, was fired by his longtime caddy for not paying what was owed.
Shipnuck’s Phil has numerous stories about Mickelson’s generosity of spirit in offering support to other players. Numerous too are the stories of junior high-level pettiness.
Parts of the tale have me convinced that Phil’s gregarious personality is a Machiavellian construction. Other parts have me equally convinced that it is genuine.
Ultimately, the only thing that Shipnuck — and the reader — really knows about Phil (aside from basic verifiable facts) is that Phil is unknowable. Indeed, Shipnuck points this with a line from a conversation he had with Mickelson in which he said “You think you know me, but don’t”
If any reporter can come close, though, it’s Shipnuck, who has covered Phil for thirty years.
Much of the biography consists of “Phil stories,” which are to varying degrees infuriating and endearing. There is also, however, some much more straightforward biography.
Mickelson’s playing career has been very well chronicled, and Shipnuck breaks little new ground there. Of more interest to me were details about Phil’s family, childhood and junior career.
Phil’s swashbuckling golf skills, Shipnuck points out, are not natural talent, but born of thousands of hours of practice in his family’s backyard golf practice facility. His father, an airline pilot, was a golf nut who built a 40 yard pitching area and green for his own game. Phil undoubtedly got more use out of it.
Golf runs in Phil’s family. His grandfather, a fisherman from Cannery Row in San Francisco, caddied at Pebble Beach. Phil’s brother and sister are golf pros.
Shipnuck’s account of Phil’s high school and college careers reveals a nerd, who happens to play world class golf, and can be a little cringey at times. He apparently took his future wife, Amy, to a horror movie on an early date because the attraction and fear arousal mechanisms are similar. He thought rubbing her hand during the scary scenes would tilt the body reactions in his favor.
Uncomfortable facts about Phil’s gambling (which I think can only be described as a problem) also emerge. From 2010 to 2014, Mickelson lost a reported $40 million (there is no account, however, of winnings. The $40 million may or may not be a net loss). The gambling brought Phil into the orbit of some shady characters, some of whom have run afoul of the courts.
Given Phil’s playing style, I don’t think it is surprising that he also would enjoy the thrills of high stakes gambling.
I would not be surprised to learn that part of Phil’s absence from the PGA TOUR has been a visit to gambling rehab.
If so, he ought to pull a page from the standard playbook: confess to a problem and go into rehab; generally those steps lead to forgiveness by the public.
There may also be a link between Phil’s reported gambling losses and his flirtation with the Saudi golf league, LIV. To put it bluntly, Phil might need the Saudi cash.
It is Phil’s reported participation in LIV that really put this book on the map. Mickelson called Shipnuck in the late stages of the book’s production to explain his relationship to the Saudis. The conversation, which, Phil now claims was “off the record,” caused a media firestorm.
They’re scary m*****f*****S to get involved with. We know they killed (Washington Post journalist Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.Phil Mickelson, as reported by Alan Shipnuck
Shipnuck is too much of a veteran reporter to get mixed up about what is on-and-off the record, so I am 100% on his side on this one.
The Mickelson conversation seemed to illustrate how Phil was willing to follow the money without regard for larger moral considerations. It’s not what you would expect from a guy who basically buys out a Target every year to provide school supplies for underprivileged children.
It is yet another contradiction.
Shipnuck’s writing in Phil is light, and engaging. I finished the 244 page book in just a few hours.
My only complaint is that there is a lot of blow-by-blow coverage of Phil’s wins (and losses) that I don’t think added much to an understanding of the man. His career has been very well chronicled by so many, and probably is mostly available as replays on streaming media. I frankly skimmed very quickly through those bits, pausing only to dwell on after-the-fact reactions and analysis.
Still, I suppose those belong in the book because it is a “biography” and not a “character study.”
Phil by Alan Shipnuck is worthy of a read.