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RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. – Phil Mickelson’s estate, with golf greens and bunkers out his 13,000-square foot mansion, was stirring one day this week.
The wooden front gate swung open when a dry cleaner’s van arrived. Inside, gardeners cut and pruned the 5.85-acre property about 25 miles north of San Diego. And a man who introduced himself as the property manager greeted a reporter hoping to talk to Mickelson, the Hall of Fame golfer.
“Right now he’s actually in meetings,’’ the property manager told USA TODAY Sports.
But Mickelson's mother was available to talk. She said her son is as happy as she's seen him in years and, during his three-month absence from professional golf, occasionally in public view.
“I didn’t recognize him at first,’’ Mary Mickelson told USA TODAY Sports during a phone interview. “He had a little bit of a beard and mustache. I don’t ever remember him doing that before. Not too many people recognize him, so it’s been fun to be able to go out with him.’’
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On Thursday, Mickelson could have been teeing off at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and defending the PGA Championship he won last year when, at 50, he became the oldest golfer to win a major.
Instead, he remains in exile.
Three months ago, Mickelson voiced support for a Saudi-backed, breakaway golf tour despite acknowledging the country’s “horrible record on human rights,’’ including the execution of gay people and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national who worked for the Washington Post.
Facing backlash for his comments, Mickelson retreated to his mansion and largely disappeared from public view.
“I wish you could see him now,’’ Mary Mickelson said. “He’s relaxed, he laughs all the time. He’s not on the phone with people that are calling him for this and that, and please play in this tournament, and it’s hard when you have to say no, when you don’t have the time to spend. But he has taken a lot of time with our family.
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“Tim and Tina, his brother and sister, have mentioned that too. How happy he seems. How relaxed and comfortable. And if it means going through all of this…I’m happy for him.
“I think you’ll see a different person if he decides to come back and if he plays, someone who’s going to enjoy playing just to be playing.’’
If Mickelson comes back?
“We don’t talk about (golf) very much,’’ she said. “I know when he comes to visit, we’re always in the backyard putting and chipping and just playing around. I guess he’s getting out there. I really don’t know for sure.''
Mickelson's absence from the PGA Championship is much to the chagrin of his supporters such as Charles Barkley.
“I think it’s time for him to come out of hibernation,’’ Barkley, the NBA Hall of Famer-turned-broadcaster, told USA TODAY Sports, during a recent phone interview.
Barkley, who teamed up with Mickelson and beat Peyton Manning and Steph Curry during a 2020 celebrity golf match, said he has spoken to Mickelson.
“I talked to Phil and I told him, ‘Hey, man, how long are you going to hide out? It’s time for you to come out,’ ’’ Barkley said. “Phil is my friend and always will be my friend. That does not mean he did not screw up. But the notion that he’s got to stay in his house for the rest of his life is just (expletive)."
It turns out Mickelson has been getting out of his house but keeping a low profile thanks to that new mustache and beard, according Mickelson’s mother.
She said her son's public outings have included watching his nephew play Little League baseball and watching his niece play lacrosse.
At a recent San Carlos Little League game, astute spectators noticed Phil Mickelson watching the action from an adjacent field rather than from the stands.
The golfer, whose own three children are in college, has made several visits to his parents’ home in San Diego during his break from golf, according to Mickelson’s mother.
“He spent a whole day with those little ones, his nephew and his niece, and really they saw a different side of him,’’ Mary Mickelson said. “And now every time we’re together they talk with him more and seem to appreciate him more, whereas before it was mainly watching on TV.
“Those things are so important to him and I think he probably forgot how important they were. Slowly you’re pulled away doing more corporate things, but things that were really the most important to him, they weren’t getting done. So I think now he’s in such a good place and every time I see him it's as if he seems better and better.’’
On April 28, video surfaced of Mickelson hitting a drive at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club, where he is a member. It was the first public evidence that he was back on a golf course rather than working on his short game in the front of his house.
The video recording incident violated the club’s code on privacy, said Michael Jack, Director of Golf at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club. Jack declined to answer questions about Mickelson.
“I have special marching orders on that,’’ he said.
But enough with the hiding, said Barkley, who offered advice for Mickelson.
“He needs to do one sit-down interview and let them ask him tough questions,’’ Barkley said, “and then apologize on camera, then move forward. You know, he released a statement (of apology). But statements, they’re not the same as somebody saying it in your face. I think he needs to do one sit-down interview and apologize. And then that’s it, that’s all he can do.’’
Later in the day, the property manager at Mickelson’s estate greeted the reporter again with an update on the interview request.
“He’s just not interested at this point, I guess,’’ the man said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phil Mickelson, missing PGA Championship, is unrecognizable, happy