On a Thursday afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz., Phil Mickelson lined up a putt 25 feet from history.
So much of sports this year has been about Lance’s lies, and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo’s hoax, and Chris Culliver’s thoughts on gay people and Ray Lewis’ deer antler spray. Mickelson contributed to the noise by becoming another multimillionaire griping about taxes. He apologized for that. His first round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was a better apology. For a couple of hours, he made sports about sports again.
He began his round on the back nine, almost holing out from the fairway on No. 10. He tapped in for birdie and followed with birdies on 11 and 12 and 13. His new driver, only in the bag since Tuesday, speared the fairways. His putter kept finding the bottom. He birdied 16 and 17 and 18. He made the turn with a 7-under 29, and a neon number switched on in his mind.
Golf is not designed for perfection. There is no way any golfer – not even the legendary Kim Jong-il – can ace every hole. So far, 59 is the lower limit of golf, at least at the sport’s highest level. Only five golfers have shot 59 on the PGA Tour – Al Geiberger in ’77, Chip Beck in ’91, David Duval in ’99, Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby in 2010. Tens of thousands of PGA Tour rounds. Five 59s.
Mickelson had an 18-footer on hole No. 1, his 10th hole of the day. He curled it in for a birdie. He almost pitched in from the fairway on the par-five third. Birdie. He hit his tee shot to 15 feet on the par-three fourth. Birdie. The TPC Scottsdale is a par-71 course, so he needed to shoot 12-under for a 59. He was 10-under with five holes to play.
What is it that we want from sports? Do we want athletes and coaches to be heroes? Because almost none of them are up to the job. Some shed their social life and education for a more streamlined path to the top. You can imagine how well-rounded they turned out. Others are regular folks, pretty much like you and me, except for their one extraordinary skill. It shouldn’t be a surprise when they turn out to have the same flaws and blind spots that we do.
This doesn’t make people in sports any less fascinating. It makes them more fascinating. They’re not a different species. But they can show us, in their own narrow way, how to find the perfect version of ourselves.
Mickelson made another birdie at No. 7. He had two holes left. One birdie, and he’d shoot a 59. Two birdies, and he’d touch the untouchable 58.
On the eighth hole, he had a downhill put from maybe 12 feet for birdie. He would say later that he thought there’d be no way he could leave it short. He left it short. He tapped in for par.
On the ninth hole, his last hole, he ended up with one of his longest putts of the day – a good 25 feet. The whole gallery was there now, around the green. He struck the putt and the crowd screamed it toward the hole. When it was five feet from the cup, Mickelson started walking toward it. “Right here,” he said later, watching it, “I know it’s in.”
It wasn’t just a miss … it wasn’t just a lip-out … it was a horseshoe, a full three-quarter turn around the rim of the cup. It’s nearly impossible to come closer to making a putt without making it.
Mickelson palmed the top of his head. His caddie fell to the ground. The crowd’s long OHHHHHhhhhhhh melted into cheers as Mickelson tapped in for 60.
In golf, 60 is a world away from 59. It is the difference between a great round and history. But even in imperfection, there can be perfect moments. On the dreariest days in sports, something can make you believe.
I’ve watched that last putt 20 times now. But every time, when it’s five feet from the hole, a little part of me thinks it’s going in.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. There might be a worse name for a sporting event than the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but I can’t think of one.