With his victory at the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Phil Mickelson made official what has long been obvious: he is Mr. Pebble Beach. The win was the 44th of his Hall of Fame career and fifth at Pebble Beach; no one has ever won more times on American golf’s grandest stage. Each victory helps mark the passage of time.
Mickelson took his first Clambake in 1998, as a young phenom with a rakish smile and great head of hair. He won his next two in 2005 and 2007, part of the stretch during which Phil the Thrill played his best golf, racking up major championship victories and securing his place in the pantheon.
The fourth AT&T win came in 2012, when he was a 42-year-old fan favorite, still basking in the afterglow of having won a third Masters for his cancer-stricken college sweetheart, Amy. (She has made a full recovery.) Last year, Mickelson went back to the future, playing a spectacular bogey-free final round to land with the great Walter Hagen at eighth place on the PGA’s all-time victory list.
Mickelson has always been an emotional player. He summons his best golf at the places that mean the most to him: Augusta National; Phoenix, where he went to college and lived throughout his 20s; San Diego, where he and Amy have raised three kids. But Pebble Beach is particularly dear to his heart. It’s where Mickelson made his pro debut, at the 1992 U.S. Open, but the connection runs much deeper than that.
“Pebble has been a special place to me and my family for a long, long time,” he says.
Mickelson’s maternal grandfather, Al Santos, was born in Monterey in 1906, the son of a Portuguese sardine fisherman. He dropped out of school at 11, working as a caddie at Del Monte Golf Course. Two years later, in 1919, Pebble Beach opened and young Al migrated there, making 50 cents a day if he went around twice. Santos went on to own two tuna boats in San Diego and helped introduce his grandson to the game on the city’s public courses.
He had a favorite expression that Phil still quotes: “As long as you have a silver dollar in your pocket, you’ll never be poor.” Its underlying meaning, according to Mickelson: Just because you have it doesn’t mean you have to spend it.
Mickelson has eclipsed $90 million in Tour earnings—and probably five times that in endorsements—and every time he plays Pebble Beach, he breaks out a sentimental ball marker: one of his grandfather’s old silver dollars, its edges worn smooth long ago.
Mickelson has always valued relationships. His career-long rival Tiger Woods largely eschews the Pro-Am, put off by all the schmoozing and his inability to play in a hermetically-sealed bubble. Mickelson, meanwhile, is always the toast of the town, a regular at the sparkliest parties and dinners.
After his victory last year, he noted all the good cheer that followed him throughout the tournament.
“There were a lot of things that went on and I think just enjoying the entire week the entire process of it all, the relationships, the people, the friends that I don’t get to see except for this week, enjoying all of that was every bit as important as playing great golf,” he said.
As to why Mickelson is able to regularly summon his best golf at Pebble Beach, a lot of it has to do with the charms of the course. It’s not a brute like, say, Bethpage, allowing Mickelson to largely eschew his driver, which has always been the most unreliable club in his bag. The tiny greens put a premium on precision and strong iron play remains a foundation of his game.
Then there is the creativity demanded by the sloping putting surfaces. A prime example came on the 13th hole of last year’s final round. In describing the shot, Mickelson offered a master class on how to become the king of Pebble Beach.
“When it rains and when it’s wet, with the spongy poa annua [putting surfaces], you have to put the pins on higher spots because in the low spots the water will collect. But those high spots are sometimes tough to get close with your iron shots.”
On the 13th hole, the pin was in the back of one of Pebble Beach’s most challenging greens. Mickelson was 136 yards out, the distance he would usually hit a pitching wedge. But that club puts so much spin on the ball it introduced the risk of having the shot rip backward down the slope of the green. Instead, Phil chose his 7-iron, which he can hit up to 180 yards.
This time, he carved a low, penetrating shot that landed on the front of the green and trickled close to the hole, setting up a birdie that keyed his final round 65, allowing Mickelson to make up six shots on the 54-hole leader, Paul Casey.
‘”Those are hard shots that a lot of guys don’t practice and I’ve become very proficient at them and it’s become a strength of my game and that’s why I’m able to get to some of these pins,” Mickelson said about his all-world 7-iron. “It gives me a good advantage over the course of a tournament.”
Mickelson turns 50 in June 2020, but he expresses zero interest in the Champions Tour, instead still chasing his dream of winning 50 career tournaments on the PGA Tour. Last year, he became a social media star with a series of cheeky posts and videos, and his business and philanthropic efforts are legion, but Mickelson remains deeply committed to his golf game. His latest victory at Pebble Beach was confirmation that he can still keep up with all the young guns.
“It’s a lot more work and effort to play at this level,” he says. “But I have believed for some time that if I play at my best, it will be good enough to win tournaments. The challenge is getting myself to play my best. It’s a lot more work off the course, it’s more time in the gym, it’s more effort to eat right, it takes more focus—all of these things go into it. So, it’s very gratifying to see the results and to finish it off the way I did. But the fact is, it’s very difficult to win out here and to win six more times [to get to 50 career victories] is not going to be easy. It’s still a goal of mine, it’s still something I’m going to continue to strive for until I get there, but I also need to be realistic that it’s going to be a tough goal to attain. That’s why it’s such a fun challenge.”
The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am takes place February 3-9. For more information or tickets, go to www.attpbgolf.com.