Mickelson's plight is personal

8/15/2009 - Golf Phil Mickelson

CHASKA, Minn. -- My sister Gina died on a Friday, not that the lung cancer cared. She was just 47, and the one-year anniversary of her death is only weeks away. I don't think of her more than a few dozen times a day.

Maybe that's the reason I can't understand why people actually think Phil Mickelson is using golf as -- what's the word they use? -- an "escape." It doesn't work like that. There's no on/off switch for your mind.

Mickelson's wife is battling breast cancer. Mickelson's mother is battling breast cancer. Try turning that switch off for a day. For a round of golf. For an hour.

Mickelson will never say so because he isn't into excuses, but it's no accident that he came thisclose to trunk slamming after Friday's round at the PGA Championship. He shot another 74 here at Hazeltine National Golf Club, which put him at 4-over for the tournament and 11 strokes behind leader Tiger Woods.

For what it's worth, Mickelson's streak of made cuts at the PGA now stretches to 14. But it wasn't easy. He had to sweat out the afternoon rounds before barely sneaking into weekend play with that 4-over.

Mickelson didn't want to stop and talk to reporters after the round, but he did. And when someone asked him about his playing schedule for the remainder of the season, Mickelson was noncommittal. That's how it is when your family's life is standing on its head.

"It's hard to say," he said. "I don't want to look too far down the road for at least another year because we're day-to-day with everything."

Day-to-day. Minute-to-minute. What used to seem so important suddenly doesn't carry the same weight. Priorities do a 180. All things considered, a major becomes minor.

Nobody knows exactly how much time Mickelson is putting into his golf game these days, but there's no way it matches how much time he devoted to it before his wife, Amy, and then his mother, Mary, were diagnosed with cancer in the past four months. It can't. And just because he steps inside the ropes doesn't mean Amy's and Mary's situations don't step in there with him.

Mickelson himself has said he can compartmentalize, that he can separate the real world from the golf world. And cancer survivor Paul Azinger, the former Ryder Cup captain who was paired with Mickelson and David Toms during Thursday and Friday's rounds, said Lefty is using golf as a refuge.

"Yeah, there's no question about it," Azinger said. "I was sitting there thinking that if he misses the cut, he's going to go back home and he's right back in it."

"Right back in it" means taking care of his family, not taking care of his golf game. He almost missed the cut here at the PGA, which has happened to him exactly once in 17 years. In his previous five PGAs, Mickelson has three top-10 finishes, including a win in 2005. Now he shoots 74-74.

Mickelson has played only four times since taking a leave of absence from golf to care for Amy. There was a T-59 at the St. Jude's Classic (an aside: Gina did years of charity work for the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital), a T-2 at the U.S. Open, a T-58 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and the PGA.

"I think he's doing real well under the circumstances," Azinger said. "I don't know how much he's been able to practice. That's the question of the day."

And here's part of the answer: After Thursday's round, Mickelson spent about an hour on the practice green working on his putting stroke. Mickelson isn't usually a post-round-practice kind of guy. He's tinkering with his putting, which is a problem since majors aren't usually the place where you try to fix things.

"I'm not going to beat many people putting the way I am," Mickelson said Friday.

Even Azinger said this isn't the same Mickelson we watched earlier in the year. Again, how can he be?

"He's not sharp," Azinger said. "He's hitting it all over the place. He's not making any putts. He doesn't know the course that well, I don't think. He made some tactical errors, I thought. Had a couple of marginal decisions -- not so much off the tee, but just once he got himself in trouble he made a couple of bad calls. But other than that, he's going to make [the] cut. So his horse[bleep] is better than my halfway decent round. I played halfway decent and shot 10-over."

Azinger was right; Mickelson made it on the number. But no one expects him to challenge for the win. Woods is playing too well. Mickelson isn't. But guess what? There's another PGA next year.

Gina never really had a chance. By the time the cancer was diagnosed, it had spread too far to be stopped. Thankfully, the prognosis for the Mickelsons sounds infinitely more promising.

Still, until the treatment has been completed, until the cancer has been given its eviction papers, the shadow remains. Escape? If only it were that easy. I had to leave a Minneapolis restaurant Thursday night because Andrea Bocelli's "Time To Say Goodbye" was playing in the background. That's what they played at Gina's wake.

I think about her all the time, just as I'm sure Mickelson thinks about Amy and Mary all the time. Outside or inside the ropes.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.