Commentary

Lefty's win, appeal draw in Chinese

Originally Published: November 8, 2009
By Dan Washburn | Special to ESPN.com

SHANGHAI -- Earlier this year, a huge Barbie store opened on one of the busiest streets in downtown Shanghai, and as Phil Mickelson approached the 18th green Sunday afternoon at the city's Sheshan International Golf Club, he might have looked to the crowd like a giant Ken doll, tanned, smiling, waving, tipping his cap.

Mickelson without a doubt has charmed China -- or at least the part of China that cares about golf. After a final-round 69, the world's No. 2 golfer won for the second time in three years at the HSBC Champions, the newest World Golf Championship event, and the record crowd on hand couldn't have been happier. Mickelson, or "Lao Mi," as the Chinese media has taken to calling him, was by far the fan favorite.

And this doesn't seem to be an accident. Lefty sure knows how to work a room -- or, in this case, a golf course. He says all the right things, makes all the right gestures -- for example, he hands his golf ball to a young spectator after every birdie. And the Chinese fans, and media, love him for it.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Phil Mickelson carded a back-nine 33 to hold off Ernie Els by a single stroke Sunday at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai.

Sunday's was the largest crowd to watch a professional golf tournament in China -- by far. Some estimates put the total at around 18,000 fans, more than double the official number for Saturday. Red baseball caps, which came free with tickets, were donned by so many spectators the gallery at times looked like a vast poppy field (or perhaps The Bund, Shanghai's historic riverside walk, packed with red-hatted tour groups on Chinese National Day).

More than three-quarters of the crowd was following the marquee final-group matchup of Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Nick Watney.

It was Laohu versus Lao Mi.

(In Mandarin, Laohu means "Tiger." And Lao Mi literally translates to "Old Mi," where "Mi" is short for Mickelson. The "old" part is meant to be a term of endearment -- Mickelson is only 39.)

To be sure, this year's drastic uptick in attendance can largely be attributed to Woods' return to the tournament, which he last played in 2006. As is the case elsewhere in the world, golf fans in China are in awe of Woods -- but they adore Mickelson.

The Chinese media had a field day comparing the two decidedly different players.

On Saturday, Nanfang Daily, one of the largest newspapers in Southern China's Guangdong Province, published a story entitled "Mickelson: Rank second, approachability first," which outlined numerous ways in which Old Mi had ingratiated himself with the Chinese media and fans, especially when compared to rival Woods.

The newspaper described Woods' demeanor at his Wednesday press conference as "grave," and said his face was "overclouded." Meanwhile, Mickelson was "smiling," "honest" and "sincere."

Mickelson, the paper wrote, was one of the "most popular stars" at Sheshan because "he doesn't put up fences" -- he'll sign autographs for a half-hour after a round, the story pointed out, while Woods often won't sign any.

And on Sunday, Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post described the matchup as "Affable vs. Coldblooded":

"Without a doubt Mickelson is the most approachable star at Sheshan. When he hits a good shot he rewards fans' applause by smiling or tipping his cap. When he goes through the crowd, if you put out your hand he'll even give a 'high-five.' Some people say he learned his sweet smile from his wife, who used to be a cheerleader …

"Woods can be 'cold-blooded.' Don't expect to get his autograph after following him for 18 holes. Don't even expect him to look at you, no matter if you're only 1 inch away. Head down, face serious, he might communicate with his caddie a little bit, otherwise he'll hastily eat a snack. His focus is only on the little white ball and the hole in the distance. He is too obsessed with golf."

Throughout the week, whenever given the opportunity, Mickelson repeated several key talking points: He loves playing in China. His family enjoyed their time in China in 2007 and 2008, especially their trips to see the Great Wall and the terra-cotta army. He wants to help grow the game of golf in China. The Chinese people are gracious hosts.

Mickelson was also quick to mention the golf courses and training centers he has in the works in China. And he wanted everyone to know he plans to have his instructional book and DVD translated into Chinese.

In some of these instances Mickelson can come off as plastic or overly scripted -- at early week press conferences it often feels as though he is reciting a memorized book report -- but he hits all the right notes, and it translates well. Sometimes at press conferences he'll say "xie xie," "thank you" in Mandarin, a small gesture that goes a long way with the Chinese reporters.

Mickelson does genuinely appear to take an interest in his foreign surroundings, as well. On Tuesday, at the tournament's opening press conference in downtown Shanghai, he snapped a photo of the city's futuristic Pudong skyline with his mobile phone as he made his way to the podium.

And on Sunday, as Mickelson approached the tee box on No. 4, a 200-yard par-3 with a canal to the left, a rusty old workboat hauling a load of rocks noisily chugged by. Mickelson, who had just birdied to expand his early lead to 3 strokes, turned to a reporter walking near him and said, "The other day, there was a boat over there running behind me with a big load of coal on it. I sure hope someone got a shot of that."

Beyond the canal exists what appears to be a military school, and about a dozen or so young Chinese men in green uniforms peered over a cement wall at the action on the fourth green. Loud chants from their fellow students could be heard in the distance. Woods hit his first ball their way, into the water, en route to a double-bogey. It was the start of a day on which, as he said, "anything that could go wrong went wrong."

Woods' name was no longer on the big leaderboard as the group approached the 9th green, site of one of the few lighthearted moments from the world No. 1's round. As Tiger lined up a birdie putt, it started to sprinkle. He sank the 10-footer, posted his first red number of the day, and doffed his cap sarcastically and smiled sheepishly. The fans loved it.

But there was little more playfulness the rest of the way. Woods appeared bothered all day. If it wasn't by his own play, it was due to a camera whirring during his downswing. After his sixth-place finish, a reporter asked Woods if he planned on resting Monday. "As of right now, I don't really plan on tomorrow," Woods said. "I just want to get out of here."

That was apparent earlier in the day. Kids lining the fairway would yell "Go, Tiger!" hoping to get some kind of response. They'd eventually get their desired reaction … when Mickelson walked by. Granted, one was having a much better day than the other.

After his decisive birdie on 17, Mickelson again handed the ball to a young fan. Moments later, when a female course worker in a red jumpsuit on No. 18 saw on the group's walking leaderboard that Mickelson's score had changed to "-17," which put him one clear of eventual runner-up Ernie Els, she giggled, clapped and screamed: "Yeah!"

She, no doubt, was one of the thousands pulling for Old Mi.

Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer. Visit him online at http://danwashburn.com.

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