Mickelson optimistic despite post-Open struggles

By Ryan LavnerJuly 14, 2014, 6:00 pm

HOYLAKE, England – For years, Phil Mickelson would arrive at the Open Championship and wonder.

Early on, he wondered if his soaring ball flight and aggressive style would translate to success.

After a few lean years, he wondered if he’d ever play well overseas.

Sometimes, he wondered what the heck he was even doing there, knowing full well that he didn’t have the requisite skills to conquer the most unique test in championship golf.

There’s a different feeling now.

Mickelson knows that he can perform – he did it last year, in back-to-back weeks, and in spectacular fashion, complete with one of the best rounds of his life.

“It takes a lot of pressure off me,” he said Monday here at Royal Liverpool, where he hopes the memories of the most unexpected trophy of his career will help jumpstart a listless year.

Mickelson has just one top-10 worldwide since last September (a span of 20 starts), though he’s shown signs of progress recently, with two T-11 finishes in his last three starts, including last week at the Scottish Open. But not even the ever-optimistic left-hander could put a positive spin on this campaign.

“It obviously hasn’t been a good year,” he said.



That his fortunes could change here seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. The 2013 Open was the most satisfying victory of Mickelson’s long career, something he said at Muirfield and reiterated now, because it was a win he never thought he could achieve. Doing so required a complete overhaul of his swing-from-the-heels game, and over the years Mickelson, for good reason, had been resistant to change – after all, you don’t win 42 times on the PGA Tour by accident.

His breakthrough, though, came in December 2003, when he worked with short-game guru Dave Pelz and learned how to hit wedge shots without spin, how to hit them with the proper ball flight and distance. After years of futility, he had come to understand that this skill was the key to links golf – the harder the swing, the more spin it creates, and the more the wind affects the ball. Now, he takes more club, swings easier and feels as though he is bunting a half shot.

“I’m not fighting it,” he said.

This entire season has been a battle of tug of war, however, and oftentimes he has come out on the losing end.

Mickelson says he’s driving the ball better and more confidently than he ever has, but he ranks 143rd on the PGA Tour in total driving – right around where he has been over the past several years.

He admits that it has not been a good putting year, not by any means, but he is hopeful that his recent work with Dave Stockton will mean more consistent week-in, week-out results on the greens. Maybe so, but the fact remains: He was sixth in putting in 2013. He ranks 133rd this season.

“Normally I would be discouraged or frustrated, but I’m just not,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had some good breakthroughs in some areas. I haven’t had the results; I know I haven’t played well. But the parts feel a lot better than the whole right now.”

He doesn’t know when it will come together – it could be this week, this month, this year – but “it should be soon.”

Mickelson, who turned 44 last month, continues to take the long view. He says that he believes that the next few years will be some of his best. He says that memories of the Open “almost motivate me to work harder and play more, practice even more, because I know there’s a finite amount of time (remaining).”

But if he’s extra-motivated in 2014, then this has to be his most maddening campaign yet. A year after another demoralizing runner-up at the U.S. Open, he geared his entire season toward peaking at Pinehurst. A few early-season injuries set him back, and sloppy play with his driving, wedge game and putting – he’s outside the top 100 in all three statistical categories – kept him from getting into contention before the year’s second major. Not even being back at Pinehurst, where all of his U.S. Open heartbreak began 15 years ago, was enough to resurrect his game. He finished joint 28th.

Nothing can change that result now, and a few weeks ago Mickelson spotted a re-run of the 2013 Open on Golf Channel. He DVR’d the highlights package and has watched it, he said, whenever he needed “a little bit of a confidence boost.”

Well, cue up the footage, because he needs one now, his game stagnating, his world ranking tumbling, his Ryder Cup spot in jeopardy. Fifty-two weeks after his most satisfying victory ever, Phil Mickelson arrives at this Open wondering just one thing:

Can I do it again?

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

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

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.