Friday, April 8, 2011

The Mark of a True Champion...

The international press may still cover every move Tiger Woods makes instead of giving other notable players much press, but it's more than clear that the most popular golf player out there right now is Phil Mickelson.

For years, Phil was known as the most talented player to never win a major championship, until he finally broke through with a win at the Masters in 2004. He won the PGA Championship in 2005 and was victorious at Augusta again in 2006, and not for one of the most storied collapses in the game (rest assured, Jean Van de Velde, you're still at the top of that list), he would also have won the US Open at Winged Foot that year. And his magnificent Masters victory last year, in the face of both his wife and mother struggling with breast cancer, truly touched the world.

Part of Phil's appeal is that, if Tiger is (or was) Superman, Phil has been more of Everyman. Sometimes his hair is too long, his weight isn't always perfect, and he usually walks the courses with an affable grin on his face. He truly is in love with what he does.

But the other part of Phil's appeal is his incredible magnanimity. In 2007, after hearing the story of retired NFL player Conrad Dobler and his family on ESPN explaining their struggles to pay medical bills, Mickelson volunteered to pay tuition for Dobler's daughter, Holli, at Miami University in Ohio.

And this week, Phil showed true class again. In one of many Masters traditions, the reigning champion hosts a dinner before the championship starts, for past winners and a few other dignitaries. The reigning champion chooses the menu, which is usually reflective of childhood favorites or food representing his home town/country or ethnic background. Instead, he chose to honor two-time champion Seve Ballesteros, who is unable to travel to Augusta as a result of brain cancer.

"All of the past champions are really thinking about Seve," Mickelson said. "Honoring Seve is easy and no big deal. I just want him to know we all wish he was here and we are thinking about him."

Mickelson's menu included paella, prime rib with manchego cheese and a gazpacho salad, and served as a tribute to a player he remembers watching win the Masters when he was a boy.

While as of today it's anyone's guess who will win the Masters on Sunday, one thing is clear: not only will Phil Mickelson always be a champion because of the victories he has achieved, but because he carries himself with class, dignity and compassion. Other professional athletes could do well to follow his example.

Now, go get 'em, Lefty!

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