How Mickelson became a great links player

By Ryan LavnerJuly 15, 2016, 4:14 pm

TROON, Scotland – His black rain suit was drenched, his feet soaked. He wore two gloves. He used a binder clip on his hat just to keep it from blowing away in the wind. And he marched around Royal Troon without an umbrella, inviting the sideways rain to pelt his face during a five-hour round.

All that misery Friday, and yet Phil Mickelson couldn’t stop smiling.

And why not?

After years of resisting, after countless Opens where he failed to adapt, he has finally given in. He’s finally stopped trying to overpower the golf courses here. At 46, he has finally embraced the vagaries of links golf, and the miserable conditions, so long as it remains fair for all 156 players in the field.

“I really enjoy the challenge that this weather and these elements provide,” he said.

Throughout his career, Mickelson has done most of his damage in ideal weather and at venues that suited his grip-it-and-rip-it game, but here he was hoping for the wind to howl and the rain to pound the course. He knew it would give him an advantage.

Much of his confidence stems from his first few sessions with short-game coach Dave Pelz back in 2003. At the time, Mickelson was 33, and major-less, and both he and Pelz agreed that the toughest event for him to win would be The Open, because it would require a complete overhaul of his aerial attack.

“He has a very descending blow, hits the ball very hard and has more spin on his wedges than most golfers in the world,” Pelz said by phone Friday. “That’s about the worst thing you can do over there in the wind.”


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And so he worked to take some of the spin off Mickelson’s shots with both his short and long clubs. He wanted to get the ball out of the air and on the ground as soon as possible.

“I was taught growing up that to hit the ball low, you scoot the ball back in your stance, which de-lofts the club,” Mickelson said. “The problem is you come in steeper and create a lot more spin. And even though the ball is flying low, it’s spinning. That’s what you don’t want.

“So now the only difference for me is I keep everything the same – ball position, swing, so forth. But I just shorten the backswing a little bit and accelerate through. It doesn’t have enough speed to create the same spin, but it comes in from a shallower angle of attack and gets the ball launching lower without the speed, without the spin.”

During a practice round at St. Andrews in 2005, Mickelson was hitting 150-yard shots from the middle of the fairway. He took two more clubs than usual, made a three-quarter swing and flew the ball about 100 yards, letting the ball run up the rest of the way. After Mickelson hit eight of the 10 balls onto the green, some of them tight, the course superintendent ambled over to Pelz.

“Is he really that good or is he just getting lucky?” he asked.

“He’s really getting pretty good,” Pelz said. “I think he has a chance to win over here.”

It would take until 2013, of course, before Mickelson finally broke through, but he called the win at Muirfield the most satisfying of his career. He isn’t shy about sharing his secret to links-golf success. He’s proud of how he’s become a complete player.

Mickelson has continued to use those lessons here at Royal Troon, where he posted two near-perfect rounds in wildly different conditions.

On Thursday, Mickelson was in complete control of his game while firing the first 63 ever at a Troon Open, his bid for history spinning out on the final green. On Friday, when an annoying rain pushed several players off-track, Mickelson carded four more birdies, dropped his only two shots of the week and remained in front, his second-round 69 leaving him one clear of Henrik Stenson (65). At 10-under 132, Mickelson matched his lowest 36-hole score in a major.

Watching back in Austin, Texas, Pelz was most pleased with Mickelson’s restraint off the tee. Instead of trying to fit a driver or 3-wood into a narrow fairway, Phil the Thrill sacrificed distance and opted for a low, running 2-iron on several holes.

“For the first time in 13 years together, I saw him hitting an iron off the par-5 tees, which is fabulous,” Pelz said. “I don’t care if he gets in trouble around the green – he’s the best wedge player in the world. But when he gets in trouble off the tee, that’s what kills you. This is the way I love to see him play.”

At 46, Mickelson would be the oldest Open champion since 1867, though he was quick to dismiss the relevance of the statistic. Compared to a decade ago, he is 25 pounds lighter, in better shape, physically stronger. “And now that my swing is back on plane,” he said, “I’m starting to hit some shots like I did 10 years ago and starting to play some of my best golf again. I don’t see why there’s any reason why I can’t continue that not just this week but for years.”

It was always assumed that Mickelson would factor the longest at the Masters, thanks to his love affair with Augusta and how well it suits the left-hander’s eye. But maybe it’s the Open (with four top-25s in the past five years) where he’ll experience the most long-term success. It was unthinkable about a decade ago, before his reinvention with Pelz.

“It was all new to him,” Pelz said, “but when he started doing it, it was like a whole other game and he liked it almost immediately. It’s taken a while, like it would for any player, but now he’s gotten very good at it. He’s embracing it more and more.”

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Stock Watch: Strange grumpy; Tiger Time again?

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 1:00 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): This should put his whirlwind 17 months in the proper context: Rahm (38) has earned four worldwide titles in 25 fewer starts – or a full season quicker – than Jordan Spieth (63). This kid is special.

Tommy Fleetwood (+7%): Putting on a stripe show in windy conditions, the Englishman defended his title in Abu Dhabi (thanks to a back-nine 30) and capped a 52-week period in which he won three times, contended in majors and WGCs, and soared inside the top 15 in the world.

Sergio (+3%): Some wholesale equipment changes require months of adjustments. In Garcia’s case, it didn’t even take one start, as the new Callaway staffer dusted the field by five shots in Singapore.

Rory (+2%): Sure, it was a deflating Sunday finish, as he shot his worst round of the week and got whipped by Fleetwood, but big picture he looked refreshed and built some momentum for the rest of his pre-Masters slate. That’s progress.

Ken Duke (+1%): Looking ahead to the senior circuit, Duke, 48, still needs a place to play for the next few years. Hopefully a few sponsors saw what happened in Palm Springs, because his decision to sub in for an injured Corey Pavin for the second and third rounds – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard – was as selfless as it gets.


FALLING

Austin Cook (-1%): The 54-hole leader in the desert, he closed with 75 – the worst score of anyone inside the top 40. Oy.

Phil (-2%): All of that pre-tournament optimism was tempered by the reality of his first missed cut to start the new year since 2009. Now ranked 45th in the world, his position inside the top 50 – a spot he’s occupied every week since November 1993 – is now in jeopardy.

Careful What You Wish For (-3%): Today’s young players might (foolishly) wish they could have faced Woods in his prime, but they’ll at least get a sense this week of the spectacle he creates. Playing his first Tour event in a year, and following an encouraging warmup in the Bahamas, his mere presence at Torrey is sure to leave everyone else to grind in obscurity.

Curtis Strange (-5%): The two-time U.S. Open champ took exception with the chummy nature of the CareerBuilder playoff, with Rahm and Andrew Landry chatting between shots. “Are you kidding me?” Strange tweeted. “Talking at all?” The quality of golf was superb, so clearly they didn’t need to give each other the silent treatment to summon their best.

Brooks Koepka (-8%): A bummer, the 27-year-old heading to the DL just as he was starting to come into his own. The partially torn tendon in his left wrist is expected to knock him out of action until the Masters, but who knows how long it’ll take him to return to game shape.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.