Phil Mickelson Rises in Popularity as ‘Antithesis of Tiger’

Phil Mickelson Rises in Popularity as ‘Antithesis of Tiger’
Phil Mickelson celebrates a par-saving putt. Photographer: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Phil Mickelson has chased Tiger Woods for more than a decade. He might finally catch him this week at the U.S. Open, eclipsing him both on the course and in the hearts of fans.

Mickelson, who is 0.55 points away from overtaking Woods at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, comes to California’s Pebble Beach Golf Links June 17-20 with a third Masters Tournament title on his resume and a popularity rating once reserved for his long-time rival that may help him close a $50 million gap in endorsements. The two are listed as 8-1 co-favorites at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc.

Wood’s one-vehicle accident in November led him to discuss publicly his marital infidelities, and the reputation of Mickelson, who turns 40 today, has soared. As his wife and mother battle breast cancer, Mickelson won his third Masters in April. The win stole the spotlight from Woods’s return to golf following months of public marital strife.

“There was so much conversation about Tiger leading up to the Masters,” said Matt Fleming, a senior account manager with Los Angeles-based Davie Brown Entertainment, which ranks celebrity and athlete endorsers. “Phil was ultimately somewhat the antithesis of Tiger on and off the course, so when he won, everybody was excited and that started to reflect in his scores.”

That excitement vaulted Mickelson up the company’s Davie Brown Index, which is used by advertising agencies to gauge the ability of celebrities to influence consumers. Woods’s numbers have fallen to near the bottom in almost every category.

Top to Bottom

In its April survey, conducted eight days after Mickelson’s Masters victory, he ranked 23rd out of 2,501 athletes and celebrities in the “endorsement” category, which measures how consumers identify with celebrities. In December 2009, he ranked 370th. Woods, 34, has fallen to 2,365th in the endorsement category from 11th in January 2009.

“He went from the absolute top to the absolute bottom,” Fleming said of Woods. “We’ve never quite seen anything like that.”

Mickelson also took the lead in the “aspiration” category, ranking 43rd. Woods fell to 2,469th, marking his lowest score ever. His rating, a measure of the degree to which consumers aspire to have the celebrity’s life, is comparable to those of former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and divorced U.S. reality television star Jon Gosselin.

The shift in ratings is deserved, according to 1982 U.S. Open champion Tom Watson.

“When you win, good things happen as far as sponsorships go,” Watson said in a telephone interview. “Phil will never win as many tournaments as Tiger, but he is certainly playing some wonderful golf. The sponsors like that. They want to associate with a winner.”

Endorsement Gap

In addition to gaining on Woods in the golf rankings, Mickelson is likely to close the gap that exists between him and Woods in endorsement earnings.

Mickelson made $53 million in endorsement and on-course earnings in 2009, according to Sports Illustrated, compared with Woods’s $99.7 million.

There currently are no plans to add to Mickelson’s list of endorsers, which includes KPMG LLP, Callaway Golf Co., Barclays Plc, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Rolex watches, according to T.R. Reinman, a spokesman for the golfer.

Woods, the first athlete to earn more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, lost endorsement contracts with Accenture Plc, AT&T Inc. and PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade after the crash that led to his admission of marital infidelity. He also was dropped by Hank Haney, his coach since 2003.

Rivalry Question

Mickelson won’t discuss their on-course rivalry, a question posed every time he has played this year.

“I’d rather not talk about that,” Mickelson said before the start of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, this month.

Woods, who lost the No. 1 ranking to David Duval in 1999 and Vijay Singh in 2004, said being replaced at the top by Mickelson would have nothing to do with their relationship.

“The whole idea to be No. 1 and continue to be No. 1 is you have to win golf tournaments and I haven’t done that in a while,” Woods said at the Players Championship last month.

Other than the Masters, where he finished fourth, Woods has completed four rounds twice in four events. He’s 118th on the U.S. PGA Tour’s money list and dropped to 13th in the Ryder Cup standings, prompting U.S. captain Corey Pavin to say last month “I’m not going to treat Tiger any different than any other player. He’s certainly not going to be an automatic pick.”

Missed Cut

Mickelson has three other top-10 finishes along with his Masters win, including a runner-up at the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina. Woods missed the cut that week for the first time in five years after a second-round score of 79, his highest since 2002.

While Woods told a reporter yesterday at Pebble Beach that details of his marriage are “none of your business,” his life on the golf course is becoming “much more normal now.” After injuring his neck preparing for the Masters, Woods said, he’s found a balance.

“I’m starting to find out how much I can and can’t push myself each and every day,” he said. “I overdid it, overcooked it right before Augusta, trying to get ready. I learned my lesson there.”

As Woods continues to search for his winning ways, the road to regaining the respect and admiration of competitors and fans -- and the support of new sponsors -- might be even longer.

‘Respect for Game’

“The things that have happened with Tiger are self-inflicted,” said Watson, 60. “There’s a certain amount of respect that every golfer should have for the game. When it’s not shown, it can hurt you financially.”

Mickelson never has won the U.S. Open, a tournament Woods has captured three times, including by a record 15 strokes in 2000, the last time it was held at Pebble Beach.

After finishing second to Lucas Glover last year at New York’s Bethpage State Park, Mickelson said he put the loss in perspective. It came eight days before his wife was due to undergo breast cancer surgery.

“I want to win this tournament badly,” Mickelson said after his loss to Glover. “I feel I’ll have more and more chances.”

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