Mickelson as optimistic as ever

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2015, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Say this for Phil Mickelson: In his 24th year as a pro, he remains as optimistic as ever.

In a five-minute interview Thursday at the Humana Challenge, he used the words “excited” and “amped” 14 times. Even Tim Tebow thought it was a bit much.

Some years, Mickelson is excited about a new piece of equipment. Others, he’s amped because of his fitness regimen, or his swing changes, or his happy home life. When the season opener rolls around, no one hits the reset button better – or more often – than Mickelson.

The debacle at the Ryder Cup? Hey, he’s looking forward now.

The 2014 season, his worst as a pro? Well, it allowed him to identify his weaknesses.

The first-round 71 in perfect conditions that left him eight shots off the early pace? Oh, he was just too tight.

And you thought Phil only knew how to spin a wedge shot.

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That never-ending optimism is part of his charm, what gives him the confidence to pull off a daring shot or win 42 times on the PGA Tour.

His hopefulness was on full display again Thursday at La Quinta Country Club, despite a scratchy, four-birdie, three-bogey round that likely torpedoed his chances to win this track meet. He’s currently in a tie for 89th.

“Even though this score is the worst score I’ve had in a long time, in months,” he said, “I’m excited about my game and getting back out tomorrow.”

Phil would never admit it, of course, but he seems more than content to let this event serve as his version of spring training – a way to knock off the rust, pound driver all over the lot and play four rounds in perfect weather. He’s excited to compete. Happy to be here. Ready for another great year.

The score matters, sure, but only to immediately validate his good vibes. It is the first round in a long season. Big picture, it is one season in a long career. But the work that Mickelson has done over the past four months has given him the confidence that he can not just compete entering his age-45 season, but win. A lot.

Last year was disappointing. He can’t deny that. He played 21 PGA Tour events and finished in the top 10 only once, at the PGA Championship, where a late bogey doomed his chances for a sixth career major. He didn’t advance to the Tour Championship. And at the Ryder Cup, he was benched for an entire day while the U.S. team lost for the sixth time in seven matches.

But then he disappeared. He went off the grid, popping up only when he accepted a role as an interim assistant coach at Arizona State or through second-hand reports that he has been working hard in the gym – he does look about 15 pounds lighter – and grinding on his game.

Admittedly, there was a lot to address. His swing speed had plummeted. His driving was short and crooked. His wedge game wasn’t as sharp as usual. His putting was a weekly mystery.

It added up to his first winless season since 2003. The first time since 1995 that he finished outside the top 30 in scoring. The first time in his career that he posted one or fewer top 10s.

“I had a lot to improve on,” he conceded.

Mickelson has been in this position before, hoping to use a past year’s failures as fuel for the upcoming campaign. After his winless 2003, Lefty came back with a two-win season that also saw him capture his first major. But back then he was 33, in his athletic prime, with plenty left to prove.

Majors continue to serve as his greatest motivator, but the landscape has changed. The players are bigger and faster and stronger, better, more technically sound, and Mickelson is scrambling to keep pace. History is not on his side. Unless they’re related to Bernhard Langer, players typically don’t get better as they approach 50.

But after poring over data with short-game coach Dave Pelz, Mickelson has (for now) settled on a unique putting approach, using a modified claw grip on putts inside 10 feet while going back to the conventional grip outside that range.

As for his long game, Mickelson said that his body hasn’t felt this good in “years.” That translates to more speed and more distance, and he says that his accuracy is markedly improved as well.

When it doesn’t immediately translate to good scores, like on Thursday, it can be a source of frustration.

“I’ve got to be careful,” he said, “because I get overly excited and I start to force things and I don’t let the round come to me and I don’t get patient. That’s the challenge for me, to put it all together for a score."

In the opening round, he hit 10 fairways and 14 greens, but two misses inside 5 feet derailed any momentum. On a day when 10 players posted rounds of 65 or better, Mickelson’s 71 will force him into an ultra-aggressive mode over the next three days.

“I feel like it’s there,” he said. “I feel like the parts of my game are better than they have been in years and I just need to get it together so the score will reflect it. But I’ve got a good feeling about the next few days."

Would you expect anything different?

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.