Lefty Still Lovin the Long Ball

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PGA TourPhil Mickelson keeps everyone guessing. Three years ago, he defiantly said he would never change his risk-taking, jaw-dropping style on the golf course, even if that meant never winning a major.
 
Last year, he was so determined to keep his tee shots in the short grass that he went to a controlled fade off the tee, although that meant giving up distance. He couldn't argue with the results. Mickelson won his first major at the Masters, and was five shots away from a chance to win the Grand Slam.
 
What will Phil do next?
 
He won the FBR Open by a career-high five shots on Sunday, making birdies from the desert and saving par after hitting into the water. When it was over, someone asked him if hitting fairways was overrated.
 
'No, it's certainly important. Don't get me wrong,' he said. 'It's not overrated, but I think distance is underrated right now. I think that you've got to move the ball out there.'
 
His short game was as phenomenal as ever, but what made Phoenix such a fun week for Mickelson was the long ball.
 
'I drove the ball a lot longer than I think I have in years, and was able to have a lot of short irons in,' he said.
 
Mickelson went with a 3-wood off the tee on the par-5 13th because he was belting his driver in the 340-yard range, and he needed something less to land in the fat part of the fairway. Never mind that he pulled it into the desert; he still had a shot to the green and wound up with a birdie.
 
Then on the 14th, he felt he needed to 'chip a driver.'
 
'I just want to take 40, 50 yards off of it and get it out there about 290,' Mickelson said.
 
That sounds a lot like the Mickelson of old, like the time he talked about taking '8 yards off a stock driver' on the par-4 eighth hole at Bay Hill.
 
But that's one thing that makes Mickelson so fascinating - and at times so hard to figure out.
 
A year ago, the focus was on fairways.
 
'Because I've kept it in play, the course seems to be so much easier,' Mickelson said last year when he was in contention every Sunday leading to his Masters victory. 'I think after 33 years, I've figured it out.'
 
How quickly he forgets.
 
Mickelson was looking at the statistics from last year when he noticed he had a higher percentage of fairways hit than the three guys he was chasing - Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.
 
But he trailed all of them in distance.
 
'When I had sacrificed 15 yards last year, I knew that I needed to make a change,' Mickelson said after winning in Phoenix. 'Ultimately, you saw the change in September. But I knew that I had to do that if I wanted to get back to being able to play at this level.'
 
In some respects, the statistics bear that out.
 
Mickelson hit 63.6 percent of his fairways last year through the PGA Championship, when he won twice and had a chance to win all four majors. By the end of the year, he had dipped to 59.9 percent. And from the PGA Championship in August through the FBR Open last week, he has hit 58.5 percent of the fairways.
 
Mickelson has been testing his new Callaway equipment since September to find which driver-ball combination allows him to hit it straight without sacrificing distance. He believes he has figured it out, and his victory Sunday - after starting the year with two finishes out of the top 10 - gave him good vibes heading to Pebble Beach.
 
'I can't wait for next week,' he said. 'I can't wait to get out to the course and practice. I'm loving playing and ecstatic about the way things are set up in my bag.'
 
If the emphasis has returned to distance, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
 
Singh smashes driver off just about every tee, figuring that if he lands in the rough, he can still make par at worst by being that much closer to the green. Woods is longer off the tee than he has been the past several years; his swing coach, Hank Haney, said power is important for Woods to regain his dominance.
 
As for the go-for-broke style that Mickelson adores?
 
He's right. That will never change. Mickelson has such supreme confidence that he only sees possibilities, not consequences. Some people blame his bad shots on poor decisions. Mickelson attributes them to poor execution.
 
One such occasion was Pebble Beach four years ago.
 
Mickelson was one shot behind on the par-5 18th and 257 yards from the green. Instead of relying on his wedge game - the best on tour - he hit driver off the deck with hopes of making an eagle, or at least a simple birdie. Instead, he put it in the Pacific Ocean and made double bogey.
 
There are three things about Mickelson that fall into the category of death and taxes.
 
His wedge game is among the best. Even when he was missing fairways in Phoenix, Mickelson knew that he only had to get it around the green to save par, or even make birdie.
 
Another constant is winning. Mickelson has gone only three years without a PGA Tour victory dating to his junior year at Arizona State - one of those was his rookie season, the other two in years his wife had an uneasy pregnancy. His 24 tour victories are second only to Woods (41) and Singh (25) among his peers.
 
And the third sure thing about Mickelson?
 
He always makes the game entertaining.