Mickelson's summer swoon; needs to turn up the heat

By August 9, 2011, 9:49 pm

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – It may not be as grim as the Open Championship stats, but Phil Mickelson doesn’t have the best record in a PGA Championship, either. Sure, he has won – in 2005 at Baltusrol to set up whispers of a “Mickelslam” before the U.S. Open at Winged Foot happened – but this championship is typically unkind to the four-time major winner.

Aside from his win six years ago, Mickelson has just two other top-three finishes in the year’s final major. He finished in solo third in 1994 when the PGA Championship was emerging from its dark era. The other top-three finish came here at Atlanta Athletic Club 10 years ago.

Mickelson finished a shot behind David Toms, who had the guts to lay up from the rough at the par-4 72nd hole with the championship on the line. Toms made the par from 12 feet to win his one and only major title. 

The win by Toms was part of another era of mostly major parity. Barring consecutive Woods majors to begin 2002, there was not a repeat major winner from the U.S. Open in ’01 until Retief Goosen ended Mickelson’s first hope of a Grand Slam with a spectacular back nine of putting to win his second Open at Shinnecock.

In a time where a dozen different guys – including Mickelson – have won the last 12 major titles, it almost seems a fitting place for the left-hander to return in hopes of a second Wanamaker trophy.

Mickelson opened 10 years ago in uncharacteristic fashion. He positioned himself for his first major win with three straight rounds of 66. But the Mickelson that doesn’t win major championships reared his ugly face in the final round. Having nodded with Toms thanks to a chip-in at the par-3 15 hole – the same one that the eventual winner aced on Saturday – Mickelson took three putts to get down on the 16th green. In the process, Mickelson ceded the lead to Toms and cleared the stage for what might be the most memorable layup in major championship history.

In the 10 years that have passed, a lot of things have changed. Mickelson got his major and three more. Woods is no longer No. 1. He’s no longer in the top 10. As a husband, Mickelson has helped his wife battle breast cancer. A patient himself, Mickelson has had to learn to manage the effects of psoriatic arthritis. Perhaps above all, Lefty is now a 40-something. Actually, he’s 41.

That means the window is closing for Mickelson to produce another major championship win. He is a salmon fighting upstream against multiple forces.

Perhaps the strongest current is the wave of parity in the game that has made domination almost impossible. The world’s top two players have zero majors to their credit. In fact, Mickelson has double the number of majors among the remainder of the Official World Golf Ranking top-10 combined.

Mickelson is batting a lineup of top-rated players who are prolific at raking in money, but not raking in major trophies. They’re not his worry, though. The major champions these days seem to emerge from nowhere, unexpectedly, and blindside the golf world. Mickelson doesn’t need to be afraid of the names around him. He needs to be concerned about the players who can ride one hot week to golf immortality.

Then again, perhaps there is some solace for Mickelson in the last of the dozen to win majors. It might offer some hope that one for the thumb is in the offing for Mickelson. Darren Clarke, 42, rode his greatest week ever to a major championship title at Royal St. George’s. No one saw it coming but for maybe Clarke’s agent Chubby Chandler. At least if someone is going to win out of nowhere, it was a guy who has been gnawing at the bit for two decades. 

What Clarke did, though, to win his Open Championship was to take the process of preparing for a major more seriously than he had at perhaps any time in his career. Recognizing the sands dropping in the hourglass, the Ulsterman made sure to do things the right way to give himself the best chance at success. Clearly, it worked.

Mickelson may have to hunker down in the same way that Clarke did – or, maybe more appropriately, how he did himself for Royal St. George’s. The Open joint runner-up produced his best finish in the game’s oldest major by trying to hit the reset button on his approach to the most unkind of the Big Four to him over the years. Deciding to try to embrace a style that clashed with him in the past, Mickelson found a way to thrive and give Clarke a serious run for his Guinness.

The same approach should apply this week. Mickelson typically plays his best golf in the first half of the major docket. He has won three Masters – an event that largely defines his year – and is a perennial favorite for the U.S. Open despite never winning it.

Then Mickelson enters a summer swoon, kind of like the stock market. For whatever reason, Mickelson simply does not fare as well in the hottest of the summer and beyond. Maybe it’s the California in the man, but humidity, heat and sweat are not in Mickelson’s bag. No wonder he won his lone PGA in New Jersey. Were it not for the FedEx Cup playoffs or the annual flag-waving team matches, Mickelson might well shut it down after this week.

Instead of winding it down this week, Mickelson needs to turn it up to 11 in a place where the mercury has an off-chance of reaching 100. Draw from something – the close call of ’01, the uplifting result at the Open Championship, whatever – and be inspired to play the kind of golf that can win a major for the thumb. It would pull him even with Seve Ballesteros and only further the legend of the left-hander. 

Perhaps the best motivation is combining the two and listening to a whole lot of Foreigner to make it feel like the first time again for Phil Mickelson.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”