There's always been that feeling surrounding Phil Mickelson of "what will Phil do next?"
Unpredictable, creative, intense, analytical, all of those words have been used to describe him over the years. Some have been said in complimentary ways, others in less-than-flattering ways.
There have been lots of people, including me, who believed his time as a member of golf's elite was coming to a close a year or so ago.
We believed he could never win a British Open because of the kind of ground game needed to win on links courses. That's the kind of game Mickelson had not figured out until last year when he won at Muirfield.
And he proved us wrong when he revealed his diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis, a form of arthritis that causes inflammation that can eventually lead to joint damage. That news would certainly speed up the process of aging and make it difficult for him to compete at the highest level, so we thought.
That news broke in August of 2010 and since then, Mickelson has won four times, including the British Open last year.
Last weekend Mickelson had to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open with inflammation in his back. As was reported by Jason Sobel on Golfchannel.com, Mickelson left San Diego and flew to Georgia to see noted back specialist Tom Boers.
In a press release, Mickelson said, "My facet joints had locked up. Tom restored my mobility, but I still have inflammation that will take a week or two to subside.”
Facet joints are small stabilizing joints located between and behind adjacent vertebrae.
The most immediate concern for Mickelson is his participation in this week's Waste Management Phoenix Open. He won't play in Wednesday's pro-am but remains hopeful of being able to defend his title starting Thursday.
How Phil Mickelson won the 2013 Phoenix Open, Phil Mickelson at the Waste Management Phoenix Open How Phil Micke... http://t.co/5lBLjPbzbT— eGolfDaily (@eGolfDaily) January 28, 2014
No connection has been made between the psoriatic arthritis and this problem with his back. And there very well might not be a connection. But it certainly did raise an eyebrow for me.
Mickelson is 43 years old, an age when golfers and non-golfers alike start to realize not everything works like it used to. That's not to say the man is washed up and/or unable to compete at the highest level.
He's coming off a year when he won twice, finished second twice, finished third twice and, oh yeah, made over $5 million.
And after winning the British last July, the biggest thing on his "must-do" plate was to win a U.S. Open. That would give him wins in all four majors and make him one of only seven career-grand-slam winners.
After his 2013 season ended he suggested a reduction in his schedule might be necessary so he could be prepared to play his best instead of having his year be such of an up-and-down journey. And wouldn't that help him in his preparations for Pinehurst No. 2, where this year's U.S. Open will be played?
“I think that I'm going to have to factor that into some of my scheduling and maybe cut out 25 percent of my events in an effort to play at a high level when I do play because I know that I'm not able to do it 25 weeks a year. Maybe I can do it 18 or 20, though,” Mickelson told Rex Hoggard of Golfchannel.com.
I'm thinking he needs to get that U.S. Open quickly, as in 2014 if possible. And I'm not saying he's on the way out or he'll not continue to be an elite player. He's proven he can do that with dealing with the arthritis issue.
For any golfer, back issues are a very bad thing. Who knows what more Fred Couples might have accomplished had he not had to nurse his back all those years? Rocco Mediate's success on the PGA Tour was limited, but he still managed to win six times.
With the ongoing arthritis situation Mickelson lives with, adding back problems only ramps up the "what's next" question.
Mickelson said the inflammation would subside in a week or two. He didn't say the inflammation would go away. It very well might not. And who knows where and when it will flare again.
What started out as a hopeful season for Mickelson, filled with the anticipation of possibly completing that career grand slam, could well end up being cut short by physical limitations.
And that would be a very sad thing.