SAN DIEGO – Every year on the West Coast, Phil Mickelson strikes an optimistic tone, talking up a new piece of equipment or swing tip that will elevate his game to another level.
This time, he actually has the results to back up the hype.
A week after tying for third in Palm Springs, Mickelson shook off an early double bogey Thursday and birdied four of his last six holes for a 3-under 69 on Torrey Pines’ South Course. A 27-foot birdie on the last gave Lefty his best round on the South in five years, and just his third opening round in the 60s since 2004.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said afterward.
And that hasn’t always been the case the last few years. Winless since his surprising Open title in 2013 – when he returned to No. 2 in the world – Mickelson had grown tired of spraying the ball all over the map and relying on his otherworldly short game to score.
Last season, he ranked outside the top 140 on Tour in ball-striking, his world ranking had plummeted outside the top 30, and in November he decided it was time for a new direction, parting ways with legendary swing coach Butch Harmon.
The biggest change in Mickelson’s game under new coach Andrew Getson, at least through five competitive rounds, is with the driver.
Getting his swing on plane was the first step, and now he says it seems “very easy off the tee” because he isn’t trying to square up the face with his hands. He can feel cut shots and draws, similar to how he swings with his irons. Last week in the desert, he led the field in strokes gained-tee to green and didn’t record a bogey on the weekend for the first time in his PGA Tour career.
Still, he said that his swing was still a week away from where he wanted it. On Thursday, he was asked whether, after a week, his swing was where he hoped it would be.
“It is,” he said. “That just puts more pressure on me, I shouldn’t say that, but it is. It doesn’t mean that win or lose is the definition of success or failure. It means that I’m starting to swing the way I want to, the way I have intended to for months, and I’m starting to hit shots again like I used to.
“I don’t know when the results will come, very possibly this week, or it could come later, but I feel like the swing, the shot-making, the game is finally where I want it.”
The numbers weren’t eye-opening Thursday – in fact, he missed more than half of the fairways on the South (six of 14) – but he got better as the round progressed, leading to a two-putt birdie on No. 13 and 5-foot birdies on 14 and 15. In all, he made six birdies on the South Course, which averaged 73.36 and yielded only three of the top 14 scores on the leaderboard.
Afterward, Mickelson raved about his “patience,” a word rarely associated with the unpredictable star.
This is a new Phil, indeed.