Every now and then, Phil Mickelson has to pause with some perspective. Such as when he teed it up at his hometown event at Torrey Pines earlier this year for the 27th time. Or when he played in the Match Play Championship against Matthew Fitzpatrick, who was born in 1994 – after Lefty already had won four times on the PGA Tour.
But Mickelson doesn’t get nostalgic. He turns 46 in June, but doesn’t yearn for days gone by, nor does he lament any diminishing skills. Not even close. “There is nothing I can’t do now that I could do when I was in my 30s,’’ said Mickelson, who concedes nothing to age, even though he is competing with a slew of 20-something players who infiltrate the top of the world rankings. Sure, many things are different now. The singular focus that young golfers have is often replaced by other priorities, such as family and, especially in Mickelson’s case, business. He doesn’t practice as long, Mickelson said, but experience has taught him to get more out of his time hitting balls. “I’m in better shape than I was 5 years ago. I eat better. I work out better. I feel better. I wake up and feel better,’’ he said. “In my case, I feel like age is just a number.’’
This is clearly in contrast to the stories that surround Tiger Woods at this point. His 40th birthday in December was met with considerable skepticism about his ability to be an effective golfer in the future, numerous surgeries – the most recent another back procedure – keeping him out indefinitely. Mickelson flew through his 40th birthday six years ago without any such discussion. Two months earlier, he had won the Masters. At 43, he won the Open, the last of his 42 PGA Tour titles to date. Of course, there is that pesky little problem of his record over the past two years. Since winning at Muirfield in 2013, Mickelson has no professional victories.
For the first time in his career, he has gone consecutive years without winning. Until a tie for third in his first appearance this year at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Mickelson had not been so close to the top of a leaderboard since June. “The problem I’ve had is my fundamentals in my golf game have not been allowing me to play the way I believe I can play,’’ Mickelson said. “It’s not an age thing. In fact it’s the opposite. I’ve hit so many millions of golf balls over the years that there’s never a shot I’ll have to hit for the first time. All those shots I’ve hit in the past now should make it easier to play and perform at a higher level today.’’ And that led to an offseason coaching change, Mickelson deciding to move on from his long-time instructor, Butch Harmon. They had worked together since 2007, a time frame in which Mickelson won the Masters, The Open and the Players Championship and 13 tournaments worldwide. Mickelson described the legendary instructor as “the best in the history of the game,’’ but felt the problem was his own inability to take in what Harmon was telling him. “I think we both thought that I wasn’t as far off as I probably was and thinking it was a softer fix,’’ Mickelson said. “I think Butch was probably saying the same things but I wasn’t listening.
After 7 or 8 years, maybe I just wasn’t listening. I just needed to hear it from a different perspective.’’ Hence the switch last fall to Andrew Getson, an Australian teaching pro who is based at Greyhawk Golf Club in Arizona. The two began working together extensively, and Mickelson said he put in more time on his game in his three-month-plus offseason than he could remember. Getson has been a frequent visitor to tournaments and their work has already paid off with some strong finishes, including a runner-up effort at Pebble Beach that saw him miss a 5-footer on the last green that would have forced a playoff. Adam Scott knows a thing or two about change as well. He once worked with Harmon – he began his professional career with the coach – and has switched caddies, putters…you name it. “Nothing is surprising in this game,’’ Scott said. “Generally if you look at anyone, these relationships have a lifespan out here. You get the best out of each other when you’re meeting at the same point and often that changes with caddies, with coaches, with trainers or psychologists and anyone else. It’s very rare to work together for 8 years. I know it’s been a very successful relationship but it’s just the way it is out here. Obviously they felt like they needed a different direction.’’
Asked if there was any risk in making a change, Mickelson was quick to point out this is not a swing change or an overhaul. “I’m not doing something different or new,’’ he said. “I’m trying to get back to what I did 10 years ago.’’ And yet, it’s really about the big picture for Mickelson. “Over the years I’ve been able to hit shots that other people can’t hit and win golf tournaments at a clip second only to one,’’ he said, referring to Tiger Woods. “And all I want to do is get back to that.’’ Mickelson is already in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has 42 PGA Tour titles, five major championships and a legacy that is secure. But he wants more. Mickelson has moved back into the into the top 20 in the world, he has an outside chance of making the Olympics (he needs to be among the top 4 Americans at the cutoff in July) and he’s firmly in the mix for what would be a spot on his 11th U.S. Ryder Cup team. Oh, and if he could somehow secure a victory at the U.S. Open in June at Oakmont? That would give him a career Grand Slam. Nope, for Phil, this is hardly a time to reminisce. He’s living in the moment.
April 01, 2016