DUBLIN, Ohio - Standing in the middle of the 18th fairway Thursday at the Memorial, Brendan Steele first thought about taking a conservative line into one of the hardest hole locations at Muirfield Village.
But then he remembered one of many lessons he’s learned from frequent practice-round partner Phil Mickelson - be more aggressive.
Steele took dead aim at the flag and holed his second shot from 154 yards for eagle and an opening 65. He came back Friday morning and added a 67 in perfect conditions to finish at 12 under and take a share of the lead with Matt Kuchar when he finished in the early afternoon.
“A lot of things are going right,” Steele said. “Obviously, conditions are really good. So kind of a lot of good scores out there. Greens are rolling perfect. They're pretty soft. If you're in good position off the tee, you can really get after it.”
Steele’s aggressive approach has paid off so far this week, and it has also helped Mickelson, who closed with a 3-under 69 Friday to finish five behind Steele and Kuchar.
Steele and Mickelson live about an hour from each other in Southern California, and they occasionally get together either at Steele’s home in Irvine or at Mickelson’s in San Diego.
They warmed up for the Memorial with two rounds over the weekend. It didn’t end well for Steele.
Day 1: Mickelson def. Steele, 2 and 1.
Day 2: Mickelson def. Steele, 5 and 4.
“He just drummed me around for a couple days,” Steele said.
“I use a little bit more flamboyant term, but that's fine,” Mickelson said with a smile.
At 45, Mickelson has embraced his role as a big brother to many younger players on the PGA Tour. Whether it’s playing practice rounds with Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson, or partnering with Keegan Bradley in the Ryder Cup, Mickelson has said he enjoys passing along his knowledge to a new generation.
Steele, 33, is the latest player to gain a wealth of information from the five-time major champion.
“I've learned a ton,” he said. “I mean, he's helped me a bunch with my chipping … It's really good to pick his brain about different ways to play courses, different ways to set up your bag, different ways to – you know, he's got ideas for everything. So you can ask him any kind of question, and he's always really helpful, which is awesome. So as much as he wants to drum you, he will help you with anything you need help with.”
During another round with Mickelson, Steele learned perhaps his most valuable lesson.
“I remember this one time when we first started playing together, in 2011,” Steele recently told Golf.com. “He was drumming me - I don't even remember how bad. He missed a green and was in a bad spot, and I hit a really safe wedge. He recovered and hit it to a foot, and I three-putted. As we walked off the green, he said, ‘You know what your problem is? You think I'm going to give you a hole. Every time I hit a bad shot, you think you can play safe. You need to play like I'm never going to give you a hole, and if I do, it's a bonus.’ He was right. If you're trying to win a tournament, you can't expect guys to give you anything. You need a killer instinct—you have to step on their throats.”
Steele will have a chance to do just that this weekend at the Memorial. Rain is expected to roll in for the weekend, and that would allow the best players in the world to go into attack mode.
Steele has always been a solid driver, but his putting and mental approach have prevented him from reaching the upper rung on the PGA Tour ladder. He’s currently ranked No. 82 in the world and has only recorded one top-10 finish this season.
“The guy is one of the longest, straightest drivers out here on Tour, and he's really become a solid putter,” Mickelson said of Steele. “So when his iron play is on - and oftentimes it is - when his iron play is on, he will score like he's scoring this week.”
Steele felt he was a little off with short irons, so he called in coach Rick Smith, who is also Mickelson’s former coach, before the Memorial.
“I was swinging my long clubs pretty well when I got here, but my short irons for some reason, my divots were going left,” he said. “I was pulling them. I was really steep. And he fixed me in like five seconds.”his
With his swing in good shape, Steele’s mental game will be tested over the weekend as he tries to win his second PGA Tour title.
“I think he's realizing how good his potential is,” Mickelson said. “So when he doesn't play [to] that level of potential, it's frustrating, you know. But he's played some very solid golf the last two years, and this is a course that is suited well for him.”