NORTON, Mass. – Two drivers at the Masters. No drivers at the U.S. Open.
Phil Mickelson threw in yet another surprise Thursday at the Deutsche Bank Championship with a belly putter in his golf bag, saying he was likely to become the next in a growing list of players to see if it will help make more putts.
“It’s awkward to me,” Mickelson said after his pro-am round at the TPC Boston. “But so many guys have had success with it that I thought I’d give it a try.”
The longer putters have been getting more attention this year, especially after Keegan Bradley became the first player to win a major with one at the PGA Championship.
Mickelson, once renowned for a silky putting stroke, has been struggling the past several years on shorter distances.
Not only has he been a mentor to Bradley this year, Mickelson played with the 25-year-old rookie last week at The Barclays and began grilling him about a putter in which the end of the grip anchors into the stomach.
Mickelson had one built to similar specifications as Bradley and received his new toy Monday. Then, he called Bradley over the last few days to ask questions how to use it.
So it’s a rookie teaching a four-time major champion?
“Yeah, it is funny,” Mickelson said. “You can always learn, and he putts it extremely well, and it rolls so nicely off the face.”
It didn’t work out for him during the pro-am when Mickelson took 34 putts, including 18 on his opening nine.
“I was a little shady with it on the front nine, but a little bit better with it on the back,” he said. “Look, I don’t mind trying new things. I’ve hit two drivers and no drivers, and I don’t mind trying something different. We’ll see.”
The timing is peculiar.
Only last week, Mickelson said he had grabbed a belly putter off the rack and tried it out, and that he would not “rule it out.” He also said, however, that a player has to understand the technique of using a longer putter because the motion is different from a conventional size. “I don’t know those little secrets … and so I don’t really putt very effectively with it,” he said.
One week later, he is willing to try it in the second FedEx Cup playoff event.
Mickelson dropped five spots to No. 11 in the standings. The idea is to at least get into the top five before the Tour Championship at the end of the month as he tries to win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million prize for the first time.
Plus, he won the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2007 and considers the TPC Boston “one of my favorite courses we play all year.” The third playoff event is at Cog Hill, one of his least favorite courses.
Only the top 100 players advanced to the second playoff event at Boston, although the field is only 99 players because J.B. Holmes had successful brain surgery Thursday that will keep him out the rest of the year.
The top 70 after this week move on to the BMW Championship at Cog Hill in two weeks.
Among those on the bubble are Ian Poulter (No. 78) and Padraig Harrington (No. 80), both of whom had to play well last week at the rain-shortened Barclays simply to advance.
At the top is Dustin Johnson, who won The Barclays with a 65 before the rain from Hurricane Irene arrived. Johnson became only the sixth player to win multiple playoff events – he won at Cog Hill last year – and he understands why the list is so short.
“These are the few events where you get all the top 100 or 125 or the top 70 on the FedEx Cup … all playing at the same time,” Johnson said. That’s why it makes it harder. And there’s only four each year.”
Tiger Woods was at the Deutsche Bank, but not for long. Woods failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time, although the tournament benefits his foundation. He showed up Wednesday night for the pro-am pairings party.
His absence – not only from the playoffs, but from dominating the PGA Tour as he once did – has created plenty of parity. That extends to the playoffs, which is up for grabs.
Luke Donald is at No. 5 in the standings, even though he has been No. 1 in the world since the end of May. Donald has only one win in the United States this year, at the Match Play Championship in Arizona, although his consistency is what has taken him to the top of the world ranking. He figures winning might not be too far behind.
“The goal is to win,” Donald said. “I think winning is more important than ever during the playoffs. There’s a lot more volatility, and winning is very important. Hopefully, I’ll have a good chance come Sunday.”
Chalk that up to Donald being a creature of habit. The Deutsche Bank Championship ends Labor Day.
For all that’s at stake – not only an $8 million tournament, but a chance to move closer to the FedEx Cup trophy – nothing dominated the talk Thursday than seeing a belly putter in Mickelson’s bag.
Donald was asked what he found the biggest surprise in the playoffs so far – an earthquake last week in New Jersey or the three-time Masters champion with a belly putter.
“Probably the first one,” he said with a smile. “I think if you look at stats, Phil hasn’t been the best putter in terms of stats for a long time. He’s known as someone that putts well, but in streaks. And he’s obviously looking for a bit more consistency, maybe even on those shorter ones.”
Mickelson has not been among the top 50 in the tour’s new “Strokes Gained” putting statistic since 2006.
Johnson said he would have to see Lefty holding a belly putter to believe it.
“Is he using a belly right now? I doubt he’ll putt with it,” Johnson said. “But as good as the guys that are using bellies are putting right now, I’ve thought about it. So it certainly doesn’t surprise me.”