Phil Mickelson's Twisted History
At Torrey Pines
The redesign of the South Course was only the beginning of his
disenchantment with the place he used to call home
This week’s U.S. Open has turned into a love letter to San Diego native Phil Mickelson. With his star-crossed history in the national championship — a record six runner-up finishes … and counting—Mickelson is a focus heading into any Open as he strains to attain the missing piece of the career Grand Slam. But now Phil the Thrill arrives at the course where his legend was born on the back of a historic PGA Championship victory. Mickelson was an annual contender when the South Course at Torrey Pines hosted the Junior World, the biggest amateur tournament of the day (although his lone victory, as a 10-year old, came at Presidio Hills, in 1980.) “You’d get off the plane in San Diego and you’d hear Phil Mickelson this, Phil Mickelson that,” says Ernie Els, who won the 1984 Junior World at age 14. “It was like he was the mayor or something.”
Mickelson made his first PGA Tour start at Torrey Pines at age 17, having successfully Monday qualified. His first victory as a pro came at Torrey, in 1993. Seven years later he prevailed again, touching off a four-win season. Then in 2001 he repeated, elevating himself from the mayor to the king of San Diego. The Phil-Torrey kismet should be a dominant theme of the run-up to this Open but there is one problem to the narrative: He hates the place now.
Just three months after Mickelson’s third victory at Torrey Pines, the bulldozers arrived. Would-be “Open Doctor” Rees Jones was brought in to recast the South Course from a beloved muni into a championship test. Mickelson hasn’t won his hometown event in the two decades since and has become a vociferous critic of Jones, who added more than 500 yards; deeper, more plentiful bunkering; and more extreme green complexes. But Mickelson’s bad juju with Torrey Pines runs much deeper than his distaste for the South’s redesign. A budding golf course architect, Mickelson lobbied San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders at the end of the aughts to authorize a redo of the North Course at Torrey Pines, which is not used for the U.S. Open but is showcased during the opening two rounds of the annual PGA Tour event. Mickelson went so far as to offer to waive the hefty fees for his eponymous design firm. It had the makings of a quintessential feel-good story: the local hero giving back to the community with a labor of love, though for Mickelson it would also be an important step in raising his surprisingly low-profile as a course architect. He had other motives as well. “It was very altruistic of Phil to waive his fee,” says Michael Zuccett, a San Diego city councilman of that era who chaired the municipal golf committee. “It was also a way to poke his finger in the eye of the USGA and Jones. Phil had been so critical of the redesign that it made the course too hard for the average player and ruined the charm of the place. He wanted to show that you could improve a golf course and make it tougher for the pros but also more fun for weekend golfers.” The North Course, then, wasn’t just another golf course project for Mickelson. It was a deeply personal manifesto.
He began sketching designs in 2011, and the following year Mickelson was hired by the city to serve as a consultant on the master plan. Crucially, he had not yet been awarded the contract to oversee the project through construction. Mickelson attended multiple public meetings, and by mid-2013 his design group had unveiled detailed concepts and computer-generated images of a new North that sat more naturally in its rustic setting, with the reintroduction of sandy soils and native vegetation. Along with the modernization of greens and bunkers came more dramatic changes, including the par-4 8th hole being stretched into a par-5, with the green moved to the edge of the cliffs. The 2nd and 16th holes would be reshaped into drivable par-4s. The plans — and Mickelson’s passionate advocacy — created enough excitement and support that in 2014 the city began accepting formal RFPs, or Requests for Proposals. (The tedious pace of the bureaucracy may have informed Mickelson’s 2013 anti-tax screed during which he vowed to move out of California.) Mickelson Design Group submitted its proposal to the city, as did a handful of other well-known firms that were mostly going through the motions. “We all knew Phil was going to get the job,” says one of the other bidders, Tom Weiskopf. “It was hard to imagine any scenario in which he didn’t.”
Then, in 2015, the state of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission delivered a thunderbolt, ruling in a case unrelated to Torrey Pines that any individual or company that helped prepare an RFP could not be awarded the subsequent project, the theory being that it offered an unfair competitive advantage and introduced the possibility the RFP would be slanted in the favor of one bidder. Attorneys for the city of San Diego reviewed the ruling and concluded that Mickelson had to be disqualified from the project on the North Course. Just like that he was out, and all Mickelson could do was release a caustic press release bemoaning years of squandered efforts. He was still smarting when he turned up at Torrey for the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open, telling reporters, “It’s certainly disappointing for me, but I understand the politics of it all. Actually, I don’t understand the politics of it all. It makes no sense. I think it’s terrible business practices, but it’s what we live with here. I’m not bitter about it. I just kind of learned to accept that as being one of the sacrifices of living in California.”
The job ultimately went to Weiskopf, whose redesign was less ambitious than what Mickelson had proposed. He flipped the nines, creating a more dramatic finish, and removed 18 bunkers. A drivable par-4 was created for the new 7th hole. The work has been largely well received by Tour pros and the San Diego golf community. The pride Weiskopf takes in the finished product is revealing of what was taken away from Mickelson. “Every golf course architect has an ego,” says Weiskopf, whose designs have hosted the Phoenix Open, the Texas Open and the Byron Nelson. “When you work on a high-profile project and get compliments from the best of the best, that’s all you can hope for. Those courses become part of how you are remembered, and it certainly helps your design career.”
Every time Mickelson turns up at Torrey Pines it is a reminder of two painful losses: the home field advantage that vanished in the South redesign and the legacy project that slipped through his grasp. But while Torrey Pines figures prominently in the myth-making about Mickelson, the keynote victory of his youth was at Presidio Hills, a par-3 course whose longest hole is 78 yards. Adults can play it for $10 during the week, and, well, you get what you pay for: Presidio has fallen into a state of disrepair. A few years ago a group of locals began to fundraise in hopes of redoing Presidio. Given Mickelson’s ties to the course, he was approached about making a donation. His reply betrayed two decades of hurt and frustration with how he has been treated by the golf courses in his hometown: “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”