This month, one of the biggest stories in the sporting world is about something that one of the world’s most talented and successful athletes won’t do. Recently, golfer Phil Mickelson announced that he will not be playing in this year’s U.S. Open. To some, this comes as a shock. After all, at age 46, Mickelson is still one of the best players on the planet (currently ranked #23 in the world), and has never won a U. S. Open — even though he’s finished 2nd a record six times. With that kind of history, and being as competitive as he is, you would think Mickelson would want to take advantage of every opportunity to finally win the thing. Realistically, those opportunities are fading fast.
The thing is, Phil Mickelson really, really does want to win a U. S. Open. But he’s skipping this year’s event for only one reason — his oldest daughter, Amanda, is graduating from high school on the Thursday that the U.S. Open begins. Phil Mickelson is choosing to be at an important event in the life of his family and daughter over pursuing his own personal fulfillment. These days, that’s pretty admirable all by itself. But the background to the story also makes it a touching memorial to a man and an event that probably made Mickelson’s decision a very easy one to make.
On June 20, 1999, twenty-nine year old Phil Mickelson was also involved in a big story that centered on the U. S. Open. That Sunday, he was leading the tournament after the 15th hole, bogeyed the 16th, and then fell one stroke behind when the guy he was playing with — Payne Stewart — birdied the 17th. This led to one of the most dramatic finishes in U.S. Open history when Stewart had to make a 30-foot putt at the 18th hole to win. He did. It was the first time Phil Mickelson finished second in a U.S. Open.
But Mickelson’s week involved more than just the pressure of playing in the U.S. Open. He spent the entire week carrying a beeper (remember those?) in his golf bag because his wife, Amy, was 9 months pregnant and due any time. If the beeper went off, Phil Mickelson was prepared to leave the tournament to jet home for the birth of his first child. The Mickelson’s family story was part of the U.S. Open story that week because Sunday, June 20, 1999 was not just any day.
It was Father’s Day.
When Payne Stewart sank his putt on the 18th hole to win the 1999 U.S. Open, he let out a victorious scream — but before the echoes of that scream rebounded off the clubhouse behind him, Stewart walked straight over to Mickelson and put the whole scene in perspective. He cupped Phil Mickelson’s face in his hands, looked him straight in the eyes, and said emphatically, “Good luck with that baby. There’s nothing like being a father!”
Amanda Brynn Mickelson was born the next day. This Thursday she will graduate from high school as valedictorian.
It is fascinating to me that in the midst of a such a hugely emotional public occasion, Payne Stewart’s first impulse was to share a private moment with his friend about a subject he deemed to be much more important than any athletic accolade he might receive. In fact, it seems that the idea for Phil Mickelson to skip the 2017 U.S. Open in order to attend his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation was planted in his head on the 18th green at Pinehurst on June 20, 1999, and cemented into his psyche just four months later, on the afternoon of October 25th, 1999. I say that because that was the day Payne Stewart and five others died from a lack of oxygen aboard his chartered Learjet when it lost cabin pressure somewhere over northern Florida, flew on autopilot for over two hours with five dead passengers and crew, then ran out of fuel and spiraled into a Mina, South Dakota farm field.
It turns out Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open on what was to be his last Father’s Day and that Phil Mickelson first became a father less than twenty-four hours later. This month, he is skipping what is arguably one of the most important golf events of his life because he took seriously one of the last things Payne Stewart ever said to him about the importance of being a father.
This story doesn’t need to be religious, but it is one of the many subjects where Christian principles stand on their own and fit perfectly with the realities of the world in which we live. Sociologists have identified a host of things that are wrong and could be improved upon in our society — success in school, physical and mental health, drug addiction, financial success, sexual deviancy, crime prevention, incarceration rates, to name a few — with something as simple as recognizing and promoting a rightly ordered view of fatherhood. It may be naive to say it, and silly to expect it, but my hope is that Phil Mickelson’s simple act will set off a beeper in our culture for those who are paying attention, and that his example will help many more take seriously the motivation behind one of Payne Stewart’s last acts of love.