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.
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?