How Phil became a social media star
From his Phireside chats to his bulging calf muscles, Phil Mickelson has taken social media by storm
January 14, 2020
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
From his Phireside chats to his bulging calf muscles, Phil Mickelson has taken social media by storm
According to one estimate, some 500 million tweets fly through the Twittersphere daily.
And those are just the ones sent by Phil Mickelson.
OK, that’s not technically true, but sometimes it seems that way. Since jumping into social media with both feet on Aug. 22, 2018, Mickelson -- who this week takes on a new role as host of The American Express tournament in Palm Desert, California -- has been a high-volume, high-quality, must-follow in the world of golf and beyond.
“I didn’t realize how powerful a tool it was,” Mickelson tells the PGA TOUR.
He does now.
How did Mickelson, who didn’t even have a Twitter account 18 months ago, become such a player amongst golf’s social media set?
To borrow a phrase from the man himself, it’s a recent development.
Mickelson will turn 50 this summer, which means when he first joined the PGA TOUR, “social” meant you happened to get paired with Lee Trevino. When that began to change, he played on, leaving social media to younger players and veterans such as Stewart Cink, Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson, early adopters all.
It didn’t last.
When along came Mickelson’s big-money, winner-take-all match against Tiger Woods in November 2018, the popular lefthander, a 44-time TOUR winner, wanted a way to promote it. His inaugural tweet, a GIF of him winking while at the Presidents Cup, featured the copy, “I got this @Twitter thing down.”
Well, yes and no. He had to get up to speed on a new platform, and a language spoken more fluently by his kids and players like Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
No worries; Mickelson backed up his bravado. He was funny, zany and daring.
He was also prolific.
If his match with Tiger inspired the leap into social media, then Mickelson’s earlier Mizzen+Main commercial, a goofy spot for performance menswear in which he danced and did the worm, informed his style. The video went viral, not only opening his eyes to the power of social media but establishing his brand of self-effacing humor. This led to half-serious, half-mocking posts about his calves and thumbs.
Going for the record today.— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 18, 2019
I need 6-7 birdies to warrant this many thumbs up. Let’s do this! pic.twitter.com/8tuXE5zKd0
If you were following him on Twitter or Instagram recently, you would have seen him working out in the gym, skiing down a mountain, and taking a selfie with his coaches and caddie. The copy read, in part: “I am ready to work hard and play some great golf again.” #hitbombs #attackpins
Says Henrik Stenson, who posts only intermittently, “It takes a lot of effort to be that active. Whether that’s because he thinks it’s a lot of fun or to raise his profile and gain more followers and give more value to his sponsors, I’m not sure.”
The answer to the “why” question is multi-pronged, but in general Mickelson says he wants to provide a forum for stories that have gone untold, and for players whose personalities don’t always come across when they’re between the ropes.
He also just wants to have fun because, well, he’s Mickelson.
He ticks all those boxes with “Phireside with Phil,” talk-show style interviews with TOUR pros (Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas, a shirtless Zach Johnson) and others (comedian Larry David). The setting: anywhere. The subject matter: anything. His one rule: Stories can’t denigrate anyone except, maybe, the person telling them.
“I think everybody that watches those feels they’re getting the insight onto what's going on on TOUR, and some funny little things that have happened,” Mickelson says. Some cringe-worthy things, too.
Zach Johnson absent his shirt doesn’t even rate as cringe-worthy compared to a few other Mickelson moments, but it does beg for an explanation.
“Well, if you know Zach, when we play in the team events, he walks around shirtless all the time,” Mickelson says. “So it’s just him, it’s just who he is. And I think it came to him, ‘Look, I’ll be on your show if I can be shirtless.’”
The first guest I could persuade to join me (other than my mom) is past Champion Golfer of the Year and Masters Champion @ZachJohnsonPGA. So cool of him to join me in The Open Champions locker room. He is a special person and player. pic.twitter.com/PzkK2rowT7— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) July 17, 2019
The response has been unmistakable; people are watching, even if it’s through their fingers. Stenson, who beat Mickelson in an instant-classic duel at the 2016 Open Championship at Troon, has not been on yet but hasn’t ruled it out.
“He asked me, but we were soaked in rain gear after one of the practice rounds at the British Open, so it never happened,” Stenson says. “Yeah, I’ll join him at the Phireside at some point when the timing is right.”
Given the popularity of the Phireside concept, and the fact that Mickelson has 715,000 followers on Twitter alone – picking up north of 100,000 on day one – Gary Woodland sums it up nicely when he says of Lefty’s social media game, “I would say it’s pretty strong for a guy coming out of nowhere.”
The most popular athletes on Instagram are soccer players, and they start at 200 million followers (Cristiano Ronaldo). But Mickelson holds his own in the golf space with 716,000, between Ian Poulter (423,000) and Bubba Watson (791,000).
If nothing else, Mickelson has proven that golf Twitter and golf Instagram are not just the domain of the young. World Golf Hall of Famer Gary Player calls Mickelson a great follow. So does PGA TOUR Champions player Brad Faxon.
“He’s hysterical,” Faxon says. “Almost like you want to shut your eyes and not watch some of the stuff he does. Childlike enthusiasm. Talk about no inhibitions. I admire it. Hope he plays great this year but really hope he gets me on his Phireside chat.”
Adds Player, “Phil gets it right. His personality shines through. He is engaging, funny and authentic.”
No doubt, Mickelson has cultivated a loyal following. Whom does he follow back? On Twitter, his tastes run toward fellow TOUR pros and LPGA stars, but also the NFL (Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, Antonio Gates of the L.A. Chargers).
He follows golf media (NBC’s Dan Hicks, David Feherty, Peter Jacobsen) and even some of the parody accounts that have taken an interest in him.
Few of these accounts, though, are as active, and as goofy, as Mickelson’s.
When he didn’t make the season-ending TOUR Championship last August, he spent the night before the first round firing off 180 tweets over roughly four hours. Census takers are still trying to find just one person he didn’t tweet to.
“I just want you to know that my life would be complete if you won a U.S. Open,” someone tweeted.
“Mine too,” Mickelson responded.
And so on.
One of the better exchanges: Barstool Sports tweeted a photo of him swimming, with, “Since When Does Phil Mickelson Have The Body of a Greek God?”
Replied Mickelson, who has radically altered his diet, “It’s a recent development.”
Absent much to post about in the way of good results last season, other than his AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am victory, and in between Phiresides, his newfound obliques and legendary calves have been a popular fallback in his postings. The best of these may have come last September, when Brady was battling a calf injury and declared limited for a New England Patriots practice.
Mickelson jumped all over it.
“I’m on standby for a flight to Boston,” he tweeted. “Let’s not let inadequate calves hold us back.”
Replied Brady: “The Phil Mickelson Method … for jacked calves? Sign me up.”
The Phil Mickelson Method... for jacked calves? Sign me up. https://t.co/HFYFGltplp— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) September 19, 2019
Younger players are among those who have watched with an air of bemusement.
“He’s kind of fallen in love with it,” Fowler says. “People love the tips and things like that, the Phireside stuff. Not sure how I feel about the name; it’s kind of a little corny. But he’s having fun with it, and I think people are getting to see his character and his playfulness. It’s definitely entertaining.”
Adds Thomas, a friend who lost a playoff to Mickelson at the 2018 World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, “He’s not faking anything. He’s just being himself. People are like, ‘It’s not him,’ but I’m like, ‘Trust me, it’s him. It’s Phil.’ He’s not acting any differently. People are just seeing the side that we see every week.”
Now that he’s a year and a half into it, Mickelson the social media maven has learned a few things, and has a good idea where he wants to go next.
“It’s really struck me what a unique opportunity this is to engage and develop a much closer, more emotional relationship with the fans,” he says. “And so I want to continue to do that but really from my angle as opposed to a younger guy.
“Me being somebody that’s almost 50 now,” he continues, “I want to use it as a way of telling the stories that have already happened that people haven’t heard about as opposed to posting what's going on in the here and now.”
He plans on having some caddies on the Phireside, “because they have some unique stories,” he says. But, he adds, he’s leery of his brother. Tim Mickelson once told this reporter a story about playing poker with Phil on a houseboat; Phil stacked the deck when Tim went to the bathroom and never told him. Perhaps wisely, Phil seems to have opted not to open himself up to further such yarns.
Asked if he would go on the show, Fowler says, “I would have to figure out what we’d talk about.” Mickelson’s second interview with Thomas, recorded in the locker room at the BMW Championship last fall, hasn’t aired yet. “He just asked if you want to do a story,” Thomas says of how it all came to be. “And I brought a couple up and he was like, ‘Yeah, it sounds good.’”
Could he see himself doing so much social media at 50? Thomas shakes his head.
“I don’t think enough people will care what I’ll think at that age,” he says with a laugh. “But Phil will always be relevant.”