Last month, at 50 years and 11 months, Phil Mickelson became the oldest golfer in history to win a major tournament when he won the PGA by 2 strokes. He is now considered an “old man,” at least in the field of sports. But I remember when Phil was young, when his wife gave birth to their first child and he became a father.
On Father’s Day 1999, Phil Mickelson and Payne Stewart stood on the final hole of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Mickelson had a 25 foot birdie putt to tie for the lead. Stewart’s ball was 15 feet from the cup for par.
Mickelson’s birdie putt came to rest six inches from the hole. Payne Stewart stood over his 15 foot putt with a w.w.j.d. (“What would Jesus do?) bracelet on his wrist, a gift from his son a few months earlier. The putt broke to the right and dropped into the center of the cup making Stewart the 1999 US Open champion.
Mickelson’s wife, Amy, was at home expecting the birth of their daughter at any moment. He carried a pager on the course in case she went into labor. At that time, Phil had never won a major golf tournament.
Payne Stewart joined the PGA tour a decade before, a charismatic playboy wearing knickers and a tam-o-shanter hat. He burst on the scene with a swagger, chewing bubble gum, caustic and arrogant. In 1989 he refused to shake hands with Tom Kite when he lost in a playoff for the Tour Championship. All of that changed in the mid-90s when Stewart came to faith in Jesus Christ through the influence of his children. His conduct and values changed.
One of the most memorable photos in sports history is the image of Payne Stewart taking Phil Mickelson’s face in his hands and looking intently into his eyes trying to encourage his competitor in defeat. Knowing what Mickelson was going through at home, Stewart said. “Phil, there’s nothing like being a father!” Amanda Mickelson was born the following day.
Four months later Payne Stewart was killed when his private jet crashed in a field near Mina, SD. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral at First Baptist Church, Orlando, FL. His wife, Tracey, spoke. ''When I met Payne, I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life,'' she said. ''After 18 years of marriage, he was still the most beautiful man I had ever seen, not because of the way he looked on the outside anymore, but because of what he was on the inside.'' Everyone at the funeral received a w.w.j.d. bracelet.
Phil Mickelson went on to win 45 events on the PGA tour including three Masters, two PGA tournaments and the British Open. He has never won the US Open. In 2017 Mickelson chose to miss the U.S. Open in order to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. Amanda, 18 and the class president, delivered the valedictorian address. Mickelson said it was not a hard decision.
This Father’s Day, Mickelson will tee it up again at the U.S. Open, the one major he has never won. Whether he wins or loses, in the words of Payne Stewart, “There is nothing like being a father!”