In the summer of 1991, two of the greatest professional athletes of their generation, Michael Jordan and Phil Mickelson, played a few rounds of golf together. However, no one was considered a pro that week as they played in Western Amateur, one of the most prestigious amateur golf tournaments in the world.
And just to give you an idea of how prestigious the tournament is, the list of winners over the years includes those that first took place in 1899, including Francis Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Andy North, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and Tiger Woods. And you may also recognize a few names who competed in the western but couldn’t win it, names like new gold medalist Xander Schauffele, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
So it’s clear to see why 21 year old Mickelson played at this event, right? But why should Jordan, who had won his first NBA title just six weeks earlier, be in the field? Well, that was actually quite controversial, but still he was in the field and was grouped with Mickelson for the first two rounds, a grouping that Lefty actually requested. And things went as one would expect.
Michael Jordan was a controversial entry in the 1991 Western Amateur
Over the years the western amateur golfers known for other sports have granted exceptions. Former Major League Baseball star Mark McGwire participated in the tournament, as did former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
You might think that the exceptions are being distributed to increase attendance at the event. And since Michael Jordan was by far the most famous athlete in the world in 1991, it’s easy to see why tournament organizers wanted him this summer at Point O’Woods Golf & Country Club in Benton Township, Michigan. And it obviously worked when over 5,000 people showed up.
However, Jordan’s appearance was controversial. Yes, he has long been a solid golfer and had a handicap of 3. But some believed he was taking a seat away from someone who deserved to be there, just as some believe Romo or Stephen Curry of time receive temporarily undeserved exceptions in professional tournaments. And it didn’t help that Jordan was on the board of the Western Golf Association at the time.
But as we all know, Jordan will do what he wants. And in the first two rounds, he was paired with Mickelson, who for a reason specifically asked to be grouped with MJ.
Phil Mickelson specifically asked to be grouped with Jordan
(LR) Michael Jordan around 1991; Phil Mickelson about 1991 | Focus on Sports / Getty Images; David Madison / Getty Images
There was no doubt that Mickelson belonged in the ’91 Western Amateur, as the 21-year-old was the reigning NCAA and US amateur champion at the time. And let’s not forget that just over six months earlier, as a 20-year-old, he had won a PGA Tour event and won the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson in one fell swoop.
So it’s no surprise that Mickelson was the favorite at the western and he specifically asked to group tournament director Peter de Young with Jordan as he believed he could handle the large crowds that were expected to be better off the group would follow than anyone else. And he was certainly right when he played two rounds of brilliant golf to open his week. Jordan, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well.
Mickelson beat Jordan with 32 strokes in the first two rounds and won the tournament
In the ’91 Western Amateur’s first 36 holes, Mickelson was the only player to finish under par, shooting consecutive 4 under 67 for the first two rounds to advance him to the second 36-hole qualifying period. However, Jordan struggled at his first real competitive golf event. He only hit three fairways, seven greens and took 36 putts on the way to a first round of 85, followed by a second round of 81 to finish at 24 over, 32 shots behind Mickelson.
But despite the poor performance that only made his participation in the tournament worse, Jordan later described his short run in the ’91 Western as “the best experience I’ve ever had in golf.” Mickelson, who later said that Jordan was “charisma on his feet” and that it was “nice to know he’s human,” won the event, beating future Open Championship winner Justin Leonard in the match-play final and finishing in the Following professional: year.
Jordan, of course, won five more NBA titles with the Bulls, and Mickelson is now a six-time Major Championship winner, having won the PGA Championship earlier this year at the age of 50.
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