By Cody Downard - special to RealVail
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April 27, 2008 — My question was a simple one - could you beat Tiger Woods on a NASTAR course? - but the devilish grin on Phil Mickelson's face was classic Lefty, revealing the hyper-competitive complexities of the man: "If he's comparable to you, yeah.
We were riding Centennial chairlift in mid-March of 2005, and Mickelson had just beaten me head-to-head in three straight ski races three short weeks before Woods would win his fourth Masters - after briefly allowing Mickelson to borrow the green jacket in 2004 for his first major victory.
The year before that at Augusta, Len Mattiace lost in a playoff to another skier and left-handed golfer, Canadian Mike Weir, then proceeded to blow out both of his knees skiing at Vail that December. One would think Mickelson, 34 at the time, might have taken note - or at least have taken it easy on a 40-something ski writer so soon before defending his Masters title.
But there was no back-off on the blue diamonds, nor the black ones for that matter. Mickelson took me fair and square. And he even allowed me my handicaps (our age difference; he outweighs me by at least 20 pounds; I was on mid-fat skis not shaped carvers; and I haven't run gates since a Warren Miller Mad Mountain Marathon nearly a decade ago).
Conceding his advantage on skis, however, was just what it sounds like: a laugher. Mickelson, an avid skier since he was four, gets in maybe a half-dozen days on skis each season. For me, I must admit it's the only sport I'm really any good at, and to my wife's infinite annoyance I put in 53 days at 15 different mountains that ski season.
In golf, I would no sooner challenge Mickelson in match play than I would call Bode Miller out on the Birds of Prey downhill course.
It quickly became apparent, though, that it meant a lot to Mickelson to toast me on Beaver Creek's NASTAR run.
After bombing a few shockingly high-speed groomers down the 1876 and Centennial runs, and even a couple of bump runs on Addy's, someone in our group - consisting of two Vail Resorts ski instructors, a local sports marketing consultant and a couple of Mickelson's friends from his hometown of San Diego - suggested we run gates.
Mickelson immediately singled out the ski writer, perhaps taking some perverse pleasure in schooling a member of the media monster that for years dogged him as the "Greatest Player Never to Win a Major" - a title he gloriously shed in final-putt fashion on the 18th green at Augusta in '04. And since then, Mickelson, now 37, has won another Masters, a PGA Championship and 33 PGA Tour events overall. He also famously melted down at Winged Foot in 2006 to squander a U.S. Open championship.
But there was no melting going on that glorious mid-March day at Beaver Creek in '05. Mickelson may have seen something in my wide-open, all-mountain stance that would in no way translate to the technique-driven confines of a NASTAR course. Regardless, on the first run I took it easy, not wanting to be the guy forever known for catching an edge, flying into Phil and derailing his Masters defense. He beat me rather handily.
The next run I went all out, crashing through the wand the moment the starter yelled, "Go!" I tried to channel any technique tips I'd overheard over my many years of covering World Cup ski racing, rolling from edge to edge, scrambling to start my turns high above the gate. And it looked like it would pay off; Mickelson was well back.
Then on the final gate he flashed by me for the win. Next run, same result.
"Don't worry," consoled one of his buddies from San Diego, "he's like that in everything. Doesn't matter if it's pool, backgammon, whatever. You just have to keep trying different sports until you find one you can beat him at. And that can take a while."
By Cody Downard - special to RealVail
Lefty on the edge
Turns out Mickelson's father, Phil Mickelson Sr., was once a very good ski racer - captain of his college ski team and an Olympic prospect before becoming a naval aviator and ultimately a commercial airline pilot based in Las Vegas. It was there - at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort - where Phil, 4, and his sister, 5-year-old Tina, would join their father for skiing weekends, staying with their parents in a mobile home Phil Sr. kept in Vegas so he wouldn't have to head all the way home to San Diego during layovers.
Later the Mickelsons would spend weekends at Big Bear ski area, perched improbably above Palm Springs, and take one big ski trip a season to somewhere like Mammoth or Lake Tahoe or occasionally a resort in Colorado. Marrying Amy, his college sweetheart from Arizona State, in 1996, provided Mickelson with the perfect excuse to continue pursuing his passion for the slopes. Amy grew up in Sandy, Utah, and is an accomplished skier who doesn't play golf. For years her parents, Gary and Renee McBride, owned a place near Deer Valley (Utah) ski area and would watch the kids while Phil and Amy skied.
"It's our favorite family trip together, because when I have time off from golf the last thing I want to do is go play golf, so it's great that Amy doesn't play, and it's great that we have interests like this," Mickelson says, adding they'll ski more when their three children, Amanda, Sophia and Evan, are old enough to truly enjoy the sport. "The other great thing about skiing for me is that with all my gear on nobody even knows that I play golf."
That anonymity - he wears goggles and a helmet he can plug an iPod into - allows him to make quick excursions like another trip to Beaver Creek in January of '05, when he put his eldest daughter, Amanda, in ski school, took out a pair of fat boards to ply the ample powder provided by a pineapple express from Southern California.
"(Powder skiing) was really different than what we're used to, and I can see why so many locals live for those days because it is so much better," Mickelson says of the steep and deep, alluding to his desire to someday taking a helicopter skiing trip to Canada - if it doesn't interfere with his PGA Tour schedule.
In the meantime, he's clearly overjoyed to be able to share his love of skiing with Amanda, who was famously born the day after Mickelson suffered his first of many major setbacks in major championships. In 1999 Mickelson told the world that even if he was leading the tournament, he would quit playing the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina if Amy called to tell him Amanda was about to be born. Amanda waited a day, but Mickelson lost the Open when the late Payne Stewart sank an 18-foot putt on the final hole.
Skiing seems to click with Mickelson as a family man the way the sport connects with golfers as a whole. Whether it's recreational skiers who buy mountain homes as much for the golf at altitude in the summer months as the powder turns in the winter, or pros who love to hit the slopes as a mental break from the grind of the game, skiing and golf enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Numerous touring pros love to ski.
"I haven't skied with too many guys (on Tour), but I've skied with (1998 Masters and British Open champion) Mark O'Meara and (1985 and '93 Masters champion) Bernhard Langer," Mickelson says. "They're both very good skiers, and I'm very envious of both of them because they have such good families who ski. One of the things that I look forward to is having family ski trips, because as a kid those were my fondest memories, and I want that very badly for my own family."
Once the kids get old to enough to start eyeing snowboards, though, that's where Mickelson says he'll draw the line. "We like Deer Valley (Utah) because there are no snowboarders (allowed). There are so many wrist injuries in snowboarding; it's not something that I'm going to take up because I just can't afford the risk."
Phil the gambler
That would seem a strange statement - on the surface at least - from a man who has been blasted by golf writers for years for taking chances with his career by engaging in everything from flying planes to driving race cars to working out with a minor league baseball team. Known to love placing a wager or two, Mickelson in the past was also known as a gambler on the golf course, going for greens when he should have laid up, attempting impossible saves out of hazards, in general failing to play it safe when such a strategy might have won him that elusive first major. Mickelson insists he isn't doing anything differently now that he's finally broken through, and he is very cognizant of the risks inherent in snow sports.
"We've had a lot of ski injuries on Tour - guys like Mark Calcavecchia and Mark Wiebe and Len Mattiace ... and Craig Stadler. So it's a little bit of a risk because we don't have any guaranteed contracts (like team sports stars), but on the other hand, if we had a guaranteed contract, it would stipulate we can't go skiing."
One of the men credited with turning Mickelson's game around after a disastrous 2003 campaign in which Lefty failed to post a single victory and he nearly lost Amy and Evan during childbirth is swing coach Rick Smith. I met Smith in the Mickelson's Beaver Creek condo the morning of that mid-March day that Mickelson torched me on the NASTAR course. Smith sheepishly told me he wouldn't be able to join us because he tweaked his ankle the first day on the hill.
It's not as if Mickelson needs any more examples of what can happen to a body when it hits the snow or something even harder at high rates of speed: "I had one little mishap in '94 skiing; I snapped my femur in half going at a pretty good clip ..."
Mickelson says he was racing some college buddies at a small ski area near Flagstaff, Ariz., when he hit a patch of ice, crashed and broke his leg - an injury he says was easier to recover from as a golfer than a wrist or finger injury would have been. After my NASTAR debacle I offered to take Mickelson on in a "Chinese downhill," an all-out, top-to-bottom, mass-start ski race that doesn't involve annoying obstacles like gates. He wisely declined.
"I feel like I take it pretty easy," Mickelson the psychology major says. "I mean, we all got together and went at a pretty good clip there (referring to the first few screamers of the morning), but with the girls (wives) and stuff we don't really get too much speed. Again, I got hurt in '94 but I've taken it a little bit easier since. That was kind of a deal where we were racing a little bit and got going at a pretty good clip - the competitiveness. But I don't really get that anymore, and I just enjoy being out skiing."
Could have fooled me - at least on the NASTAR course.
That's when I asked him about Tiger Woods, who took a ski lesson for the first time in 2004 at the behest of his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren, an accomplished skier in her own right. Woods has since been spotted at Beaver Creek as well.
"From what I understand, because his wife Elin is a very good skier from Sweden, I think (Tiger has) been learning, which is pretty cool," Mickelson says, adding he rather enjoys the comparisons between the Woods-Mickelson rivalry of today and the Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer rivalry a generation earlier. "It's been flattering and fun and I hope it develops. It's early, but I hope that it develops. I think it would be really cool if it did."
With just three major titles to Woods' 13, Mickelson means he must win more big tournaments to make the rivalry more balanced, but from what I've seen on the slopes, he just needs to challenge Tiger to a ski race.
A version of this story first appeared in Rocky Mountain Golf in 2005.
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