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Mickelson: Athletes not given enough credit in new distance report

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Phil Mickelson isn’t exactly embracing the USGA and R&A’s conclusions in its Distance Insights Project.

Apparently, that’s partly due to its authors.

He believes the USGA and R&A’s findings don’t give athletes enough credit for the distance gains.

Also, he doesn’t appear to favor those organizations' plans to study the possibility of establishing a local rule that would allow tournament bodies to rein back equipment, to shorten the distance that balls and clubs create.

Asked specifically about constraints the local rule would allow, Mickelson said:

“I struggle with some of our governing bodies. I struggle with it because we're the only professional sport in the world that is governed by a group of amateurs, and that leads to some questionable directions that we go down. I wish that we had people that are involved in the sport professionally to be in charge a little bit more.”

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The USGA and R&A stated in Tuesday's Distance Insights Project that increased length has had an undesirable effect on the game.

Mickelson’s relationship with the USGA has been tested over the years. He has been critical of U.S. Open setups, a frustration that appeared to be behind his controversially swatting a moving putt at the 13th hole in the third round of the championship at Shinnecock Hills in 2018, when the USGA lost control of baked out greens.

What does Mickelson think of the project’s conclusion that distance gains are detrimental to the game and need to stop? He said he didn’t explore the report in depth, but from what he has read, he believes it doesn’t give athletes enough credit for creating distance gains.

“I also don't feel that you should punish the athletes for getting better,” he said. “I don't think that we have had massive equipment changes. We have just had athletes that have been able to take advantage of the equipment, more so than in the past. And I hate to see that discouraged.

“You look at what Bryson [DeChambeau] has done getting in the gym, getting after it, lifting weights, and hitting bombs . . . and now you're talking about trying to roll it back, because he has made himself a better athlete? So, I don't know if I agree with that.”

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Mickelson tempered his remarks, saying he doesn’t have all the perspective required to know the full impact distance is having on other areas of the sport.

“I also don't really understand the whole scope of how it affects the game and how it affects agronomy and golf courses and so forth, so I'm not sure I'm the best one to really comment on it,” he said. “I just know from the small little bubble of the PGA Tour, I hate seeing the athletes be punished, or discouraged from continuing to work and get better.”

Mickelson was asked if he remembers how far he hit the ball when he was 21, and how much of the distance gains he enjoys as a 49-year-old today are due to technology and how much are due to athleticism. He acknowledged a big part of the jump was solid-core ball technology, but he said training to find more speed in his swing is also a large reason he still hits it with the tour’s longest players.

“So, my numbers might be fractionally off, but in 1993 or 1994 I was 25th in driving distance at 269 [yards], and in 2003, I was 25th in distance at 299,” he said. “So, there's a 30-yard difference there. And I've jumped up a little bit in the last few years from 2003. I'm averaging just over 300, I don't know, 303, 307, something like that. And that is equating to just training and swinging the club faster. I've always been right around 25th in distance, give or take, and I'm back to that area, I would say.

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“But, in that jump, I would say a big majority of that jump was that golf ball, when we went from the wound ball to the solid core. That was a big deal, because what happened was the longer guys with more speed, the stronger guys, would swing that wound ball and it would just over spin. It would spin 3,400, 3,500 RPMs. It's not that the ball came off slower. It just had so much drag in the spin. And when we created that solid-core technology, we were able to reduce the spin and increase the launch, and also perimeter weight the ball. So, that made a big difference too, because it wasn't curving as much, and that allowed guys to hit it the same speed off the face, but get rid of 1,200 to 1,500 RPMs of spin, and reduce the drag, and get the ball to fly right through the air. That's been the biggest difference.”

Mickelson went deep, when speaking about power’s place in the game, and the importance of swing speed. He rivaled DeChambeau in talking the science of golf:

“You can win on the PGA Tour not hitting the ball long,” Mickelson said. “You can out-putt, you can out-strike, you can have great weeks and win golf tournaments without being the longest guy, or without overpowering a golf course. But, you cannot dominate the sport without [speed]. You might be able to do it for a year or two, but you can't out-perform everyone consistently without clubhead speed, because there's no substitute for speed in this game. It allows you to put more spin on the ball. It allows you to hit the ball longer, make carries come in higher and softer into the greens. It allows you to do more with a golf ball than if you don't have speed, and the best players in the world are going to have to have speed. So, there's no substitute.

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“There is a point, in my opinion, of diminishing return at about 182 miles an hour ball speed, which is going to equate to about 122 miles an hour clubhead speed. You usually have about a 1.5 smash factor, 150 percent energy transfer. It's a little bit less the faster you swing the ball. But at 182 miles an hour ball speed with a driver, you start going faster than that, you start losing a little bit of control, and it almost has a diminishing return. That's why you'll find all the top guys right in that area.

“I was struggling to get to 170 miles an hour ball speed. For me, to hit 182, 183 now, I can do it at will. So, that doesn't hold me back. Now, what's holding me back are some of the other areas. Maybe my iron play hasn't been as great, my putting hasn't been as great, maybe my accuracy could be better. Well, that's not maybe, that could be. But those areas, I'm also addressing. But if I didn't have the speed to start with, it wouldn't even give me a fair chance. So, hitting bombs is flying the ball 315 and getting 182 ball speed with ideal launch conditions.”