'Maybe some good will come from it': Phil Mickelson has support of Detroit fans
Detroit — Lefty has left the 3-1-3. But he made his mark, both on and off the golf course.
Phil Mickelson's first time playing a professional golf tournament in the city limits of Detroit, and his first time playing in the Metro Detroit area since the PGA Championship in 2008, came to an end around midday Sunday. The golf was mediocre, as he finished 3 under after a third consecutive par-72 at Detroit Golf Club. But the show was spectacular, at least if your barometer is crowd size and ticket sales, which for title sponsor Rocket Mortgage, it most certainly is.
"He moves the needle," said Ryan Brehm, the Mount Pleasant native, Traverse City resident and Michigan State alum who got to play a couple of groups behind Mickelson in the first two rounds of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. "He's a great ambassador for the game, and I know the people of Detroit love him.
"Phil handled it brilliantly, like he does."
Mickelson, 51, the six-time major winner and 45-time PGA Tour champion, was the clear headliner this week, and moved tickets when he officially committed to play in late May. Then he was in the headlines even before teeing it up, when The Detroit News reported Tuesday about his gambling ties to a mob-connected Grosse Pointe Park bookie. Mickelson was reportedly cheated out of $500,000, and wasn't accused of wrongdoing.
Immediately, Mickelson's team jumped into action, questioning the timing of the story — the deposition transcripts that unearthed the ties were unsealed three years ago, but were just discovered by a reporter during a court case last month; the story had never been publicly told — and rallying the fans.
He used his Twitter account — only created in 2018 — as his megaphone, interacting with fans and media, firing off several tweets during a lengthy rain delay Thursday.
"I never understood how impactful social media can be," said Mickelson, who has nearly 750,000 followers. "When some stuff happened this week, it was nice to have a voice."
The fans, of course, rallied behind him, in droves. His gallery Thursday was loud and rowdy, and it was even rowdier Friday after Mickelson had said the night before he wouldn't come back to Detroit in 2022 because of the "divisive" report. As he approached the first tee Friday, fans loudly chanted support, and were egged on to keep going by playing partner Rickie Fowler, a Rocket Mortgage pitchman.
After Friday's round, during which he was serenaded with a whole lot of, "Come back Phil!" cries, Mickelson changed his tune and said he'd be back — if an online petition started in Detroit got the 50,000 signatures, and those 50,000 signers did one act of random kindness for somebody in the community. Mickelson kicked off that effort with a $100,000 donation to the Detroit Children's Foundation.
Mickelson, well down the leaderboard, played early Saturday and Sunday, so the crowds arrived early, too, on the ground and beyond.
During Sunday's round, an airplane flew high above Detroit Golf Club with a sign that read: "Phil, come back in 2022," signed by Stefan, Dominic, John and Jeff. Golf Channel showed the banner on its pregame coverage. The story went national when Mickelson decided to respond.
"I enjoyed my time here," Mickelson said following Sunday's round, before taking some socially distanced photos with fans and hopping on a plane for Tuesday's made-for-TV exhibition match with Bryson DeChambeau, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in Montana.
"The people were terrific.
"I didn't play as well as I wanted to ... but I really enjoyed the people."
Said Fowler: "Hopefully we can get him back."
The PGA Tour doesn't release specific ticket-sale numbers, but Rocket Mortgage Classic officials have acknowledged that Mickelson's May commitment created a significant uptick in interest. And it was clear Mickelson's crowds were much bigger Friday than they were Thursday, after he decided to speak his mind. That's no small thing, given the tournament had such a short window to sell tickets leading into the tournament — the state didn't lift fan restrictions until June 1. In Year 1 of the tournament, tickets went on sale 3½ months before the opening round. In Year 2, there were no fans because of COVID-19.
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Rocket Mortgage Classic officials eventually came to embrace the Mickelson story this week.
On Sunday, there were several fliers and stickers posted all over the course — a red Detroit D with a QR code in the middle of it, under the headline: "SCAN HERE TO BRING PHIL BACK."
With Tiger Woods out with injury, Mickelson is the biggest draw in golf — and his legion of fans actually rivals Woods', given the time Mickelson gives the fans. He typically signs many autographs after every round but shied away from that this week to adhere to the PGA Tour's no-autograph rule amid COVID-19 (several players ignored that rule). But he took selfies, from a distance, and gave out a whole lot of golf balls to kids.
He's the modern-day Arnold Palmer— in that, he's not as good as the best player of his era (Jack Nicklaus, in Palmer's case), but he's every bit as popular because of his interactions with the galleries.
Mickelson might've given the media, or at least one outlet, a thumbs-down this week.
But pretty much everybody else received a thumbs-up and a wide grin from the man behind the aviators.
"We were talking about it at the house a little bit," said Brehm, who stayed with fellow pros Joel Dahmen and Mark Hubbard in a house this week. "I know the Rocket Mortgage people, Dan Gilbert and Mark Hollis and Jay Farmer ... and all of us players and Michiganders, we'd love to see Phil back.
"I think it was unfortunate what happened, the way it happened.
"But maybe some good will come from it."