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In San Diego, Almost Everyone Has Their Own Phil Story to Tell


Phil Mickelson earned his spot is last week’s U.S. Open tournament at Torrey Pines, just a stone’s throw from where he grew up in the Del Cerro neighborhood of San Diego. While he may not have won his second major this year, don’t tell the locals he isn’t a hometown hero. Mickelson is widely recognized, even by non-golfers, in SD.
Phil was introduced to golf at an early age and his father even constructed a massive hole & green in their back yard to meet USGA requirements. It’s fair to say he had a tremendous amount of support in pursuing his dreams. The San Diego Union Tribune interviewed a young Phil Mickelson, who at only 17 seemed to know exactly what he hoped to accomplish in his life. When asked by journalist, Hank Wesch, about his goals, Mickelson responded, “If I said what they were, people would think they’re far-fetched.” If only Phil could see just how much he would go on to accomplish, he probably wouldn’t think of his dreams as ‘far-fetched’.
Just down the street from where Phil called home, sits Mission Trails Golf Course. San Diego golfers know the course well, although it went by a different name when he would help with tasks around the course to earn free rounds during his middle school years. Almost anyone here could tell you their own Phil story. In the pro shop, Paul Rathbun talks of working at Balboa Park across town when:
“He called me in the pro shop, Balboa, on a Thursday morning, and said, ‘This is Phil Mickelson from the PGA Tour.’
“I said, ‘Of course it is.’
“He said, ‘It is.’
“So I said, ‘I’ve been watching you since I was 12 years old.’”
Rathbun pulled some strings to squeeze Phil into one of the earliest spots on the tee sheet without letting anyone else in on the secret. “I got to shake his hand and meet him in real life,” he said. “It meant a lot. It was a cool experience. He means a great deal to San Diego.”
A bit west, past what used to be Qualcomm Stadium, is Riverwalk Golf Course where a banner hangs outside that says, “DISCOVER YOUR SWING/TEXT A COACH”. In his youth, a mischievous Phil came here to hide during a family holiday recalled his sister Tina to Bob Harig of ESPN.com, only to be tracked down by terribly upset parents later. It is also down the street from where he attended high school, although that has now given way to an attractive apartment complex.
The instructors at Riverwalk know Phil well. One such teacher is Bob Townsend, who also owns one of San Diego’s oldest restaurants and spent many of his school years alongside Mickelson. Even back then, Phil was winning the school tournament and Townsend remembers him blowing the competition out of the water. You don’t have to go far to find someone who has encountered the local legend. A couple of friends spoke of playing against Mickelson as a teenager. When Phil lost the round, he spent hours at the range afterwards working to correct his mistakes. “Phil proves that it’s all about the grind,” Townsend explains. “‘Cause he’s older. Everybody said he wasn’t going to be a factor anymore. He’s got the arthritis. His swing speed had gone down.” He displayed his incredible talent and proved that age is just a number with his win at the PGA Championship at 50 years old.
“I’ll tell you this,” Townsend states. “People who couldn’t care less about golf know who Phil is in San Diego.”
Also at Riverwalk is local swing coach, Jason Peterie, who upset Mickelson during a tense 1985 match play at Torrey Pines. “That’s where Phil lived,” Townsend said — when Peterie closed with a hole-in-one, a birdie and a hole-in-one, “And Phil’s like, Really?” With pictures to prove it, Peterie is just another in a long line of locals to have memorable experiences with the now famous San Diego native.
Not far from Mission Valley is Balboa Park Golf Course where Sam Snead set the record and you can still find Phil playing the occasional round. “When he’s here, he stops for everybody — picture, picture, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” said golf operations assistant, Dan Allen. Equipped with his “Sunday bag,” and he’s “like [Arnold] Palmer, he makes eye contact with everyone,” Allen recalls. After playing his round, Phil usually makes a quick exit to avoid the crowd.
Phil returned home again last week and on Monday as he geared up for the U.S. Open, said, “What’s happened for me is I spent so many hours [on Torrey Pines] as a kid that, when the course was redesigned, all that local knowledge went away. I really haven’t come out here and spent a ton of time. It’s hard to get a tee time here, and when you do, it’s a long round. So I don’t spend a lot of time out here other than the Farmers [the PGA Tour event in winter].
I really made an effort here, having the last week off, to spend time out here and really learn, relearn the greens. So I spent a lot of hours out here on the greens last week to see if I can get that local knowledge again, and we’ll see how it goes, but I had a lot of fun kind of relearning and spending a lot of time out here.”

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