One of the first times Phil Mickelson tried one of his now famous straight-up-the-elevator-shaft flop shots, his brother Tim was his willing human prop.
“He was doing a skills challenge and there was a group of people there and he was showing off a bit,” Tim Mickelson recalled.
“He bladed me right in the back. The second time he was successful.”
When presented with the opportunity to return to Arizona State as the coach, leading the program his brother helped shape into a national power, Tim was ready when called.
It was a formidable challenge, though not as scary as allowing someone to try to pop a wedge shot straight up over your head.
“It was definitely a difficult decision,” said Tim, who played at ASU before finishing at Oregon State and spent the last eight seasons as the coach at San Diego. “Our entire family’s lives are in San Diego. I built the program at San Diego. I felt I had ownership of it.
“But I’m a very competitive person, and I wanted to win at the highest level and wanted a chance to win the national championship every year. We have the resources here, the facilities, the tradition. It was way too much for me to turn down.”
With resources, facilities and tradition come significant expectations, some of the highest. Previous coach Randy Lein was with the program for 20 years, a time span in which the Sun Devils won 44 collegiate team titles, including the NCAA championship in 1996.
It’s a sobering fact not lost on Tim Mickelson.
“They ended up getting rid of the coach when they were ranked in the top 25 last year,” he said. “But I agree the expectations should be high. I feel the Pac-12 is the best conference in the country. Six of our teams are in the coaches’ top 12. The competition is extremely good.
“But we own our golf course, we have a practice facility with a teaching building literally on campus and access to all the courses around here. Six of them have hosted PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour or Q-School (PGA Tour Qualifying School) events. It’s a Mecca of golf.”
Having one of the most famous last names in golf doesn’t hurt when it comes to recruiting, Tim admits, but he knows ultimately he and his program will have to sell themselves.
“I don’t think kids mind when they hear my last name,” Mickelson said. “I think the fact that it’s Arizona State and we have produced players who have 65 tour wins and $143 million in [PGA Tour] earnings — that gets them to return phone calls more than the last name.
“Ultimately, they’re not going to go to school here because the coach is Phil Mickelson’s brother. It’s a school where they can get a good education and the best opportunity to go pro if that’s what they want to do.”
Nearly seven years apart in age, there was never a mean-spirited sibling rivalry between Tim Mickelson, 34, and Phil, 41.
There was competition, though. Constantly.
“We competed in everything we did,” Tim said. “I was a lot younger, so it wasn’t fair when we played basketball or anything, so we adjusted the rules. In football, I’d have to have two-hand touch on him and he’d have to tackle, or I’d get six downs and he’d get three.
“It was always a friendly rivalry. I never fought once with him.”
Then there was golf. Their father, Phil Sr., a former Naval aviator and airline pilot, converted a major part of the family’s back yard in San Diego to a golf practice area.
“In 1980 when I was about 3 and Phil was 10, dad took a Bobcat and started grading,” Tim explained. “He created a 25-, 30-yard golf hole with a bunker and two cups in the green – one easy, one tougher. That’s where he started learning his great short game.”
Phil Mickelson went on to become a three-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American at Arizona State, a career that included a PGA Tour win in Tucson as an amateur in 1991.
“As much respect as I have for my brother’s golf game,” Tim said, “I have more respect for what he does for other people and from a philanthropic standpoint.”
Naturally, Phil is thrilled to see his brother leading his old program now.
“I think he’s the perfect guy for the job,” Phil Mickelson said recently. “He loves Arizona State. He’s such a solid guy that parents are going to want their kids to play for him. And he knows how to play, so he’s going to help his players get the best out of their game.”
Of course, if anyone knows the importance of a player having their own individual swing it’s Tim Mickelson. He’s left-handed but plays golf right-handed, while Phil is right-handed and plays golf from the left side.
“My philosophy is to be the best you are you have to take ownership of your own game,” Tim said. “My job is to provide them every possible resource to be the best. It’s up to them to put in the time.”
Tim would probably have gone to Augusta, Ga., to support his brother’s pursuit of a fourth green jacket at The Masters, but Coach Tim trumped Brother Tim this time.
Arizona State was set to host its 40th annual ASU Thunderbird Invitational April 6-7 at the ASU Karsten Golf Course, site of an NCAA regional in 2013. The tournament coincided with the last two rounds of The Masters.
Brothers are one thing, but business is another. And the best way Tim Mickelson can honor his brother, the former Sun Devil, is to bring Arizona State back to the top of college golf.