WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Here at The Greenbrier, a sprawling 6,751-acre playground in the bucolic West Virginia foothills, golf can sometimes become an afterthought, even for those who get paid to play it for a living. A simple check of PGA Tour players' Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts this week will return results that look like a photo essay entitled, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.”
The best description for this place -- during this week, at least -- is that it's like summer camp for professional golfers. There isn’t a competitor in the field who hasn’t enjoyed kayaking or fly fishing or clay shooting or even a little falconry at some point.
Prior to the start of this tournament, Phil Mickelson was asked about the coolness factor of what has become an increasingly well-liked tournament. He concurred with the notion, but after missing the cut in each of his first two appearances here he also added a caveat.
“I haven’t actually seen it on a weekend,” he deadpanned, “but I hear it’s even better on weekends.”
Mickelson will have to continue taking other players’ words for it, because for the third straight year he’ll fail to see The Greenbrier on a weekend, as rounds of 74-68 left him gassing up the plane for a trip home to San Diego.
“It has been a frustrating three years for me playing like this on a golf course that I really admire and respect,” he admitted.
As Mickelson flies past an atypically dark cloud on his way out of town, he will be able to point to a few silver linings out the window.
His second-round total of 2-under 68 marked the first time in six tries that he actually broke par here on The Old White TPC, lowering his scoring average to a still-hefty 71.17 on a course that traditionally yields lower scores.
He cut his number of strokes in half on the 17th and 18th holes. That’s not an easy task, but one day after posting triple bogey on the par-5 penultimate hole and bogey on the par-4 closer, he birdied each of them, needing six fewer shots to complete those two holes.
And he figured something out about his game and this course, even though it’s taken three years for it to sink in.
“It's my distance control with my irons I haven't figured out yet,” he said after hitting 24 of 36 greens in regulation over two days. “We're a couple thousand feet, [but] we've been practicing at sea level, so obviously it's going to go longer. It's the same altitude as Phoenix but it goes a different yardage and I haven't quite figured it out. I've posed over a lot of iron shots today and they end up not just a yard or two off from where I figure, but they're 10 or 12 yards off from where I figure. I think as I look back on these last three years, that's been the biggest issue for me is distance control with the irons.”
There is no room for an explanation on the scorecard, but we can still try to pencil in a few questions. Why did it take so long for him to figure this out? How come other players aren’t similarly affected?
For his part, Mickelson was steadfast in this determination, even offering specific instances.
“I’ll give you an example that sets the tone for this week: On 16, the par 4, I hit a great drive and an iron shot that I thought was going to hit the pin coming down,” he explained. “Not only did it not hit the pin, it flew a yard from the back edge and went over the green and into the rough. It caught me off guard to fly seven yards off the number I was expecting. I just have not been able to get my distance dialed in here. The elevation change, I haven’t been able to adjust to it.”
To his credit, Mickelson has sought advice from anyone and everyone. On Wednesday, prior to the opening round, he stood in the second fairway, confounded as to his aiming points for certain pin positions. Jim Justice, the ubiquitous owner of this property, pulled up alongside him in a golf cart and the two discussed strategy for nearly 10 minutes, with Mickelson doing more listening than speaking.
“Look, I’m looking for advice from anybody, because it’s giving me problems,” he said.
As it turns out, even the man who runs this place couldn’t help Mickelson, as he bogeyed that second hole each day this week.
Next up for Mickelson is a few days of practice back home in San Diego, followed by next week’s Scottish Open, then the Open Championship. He remains optimistic about his game for the second half of this year, repeatedly maintaining that he’s playing solid golf right now.
That may be true, but he won’t be playing it this weekend. Not here, at least.
Once again, despite his wishes, Mickelson will fail to see the weekend at The Greenbrier. As he said earlier this week, he’d hoped to stick around for the first time.
“I wasn’t really thinking as a fan,” he said. “I was thinking about playing. So this isn’t what I was hoping for.”
Even so, he’ll see a few silver linings to the dark cloud outside his window on the flight home.