Phil Mickelson is truly a wonder, a phenomenon, a likable bloke who, at 48, plays a kind of all-out golf, like a youngster might. Phil takes chances, something we amateurs can relate to. We also take chances because a lot of the time chance, or risk/reward as we call it, is part of the equation of any given shot. We often doubt our ability to clear a daunting obstacle, but we go for it anyway. Layup? Nah. We may only play once a week so we go for it. We take a chance and often wind up in big trouble, lamenting our plight with a few choice words not fit for print. But Phil knows he’s done it before and can probably pull it off again. With 44 wins, he’s cleared lakes and creeks and trees and bunkers and forests and a couple of oceans, making amazing shots like Houdini freed his shackles…underwater! In his words (as he said on Feherty’s show), “That how I roll.”
Now, two years short of the Champions Tour, he put on a clinic at the AT&T last week, surprising even himself with how many fairways he hit. And his distance off the tee kept up with most of the Tour’s young guns. His putting showed no signs of age-deterioration on Pebble’s daunting surfaces. Older pros often get the line right but lose the speed necessary to hold the line, missing below the cup (sort of like amateurs, but we also often get the line wrong as well). Last week, Phil had the line, the speed, and the win.
So, looking ahead to the U.S. Open, being played at Pebble this June, one daydreams of Phil winning the one major that has eluded him. The set up will be tougher, requiring more accuracy off the tee. The greens will be faster. Instead of bombing and gauging his way around the course, Phil will need to take a lesson from the Warriors and realize good defense is just as important as offense sometimes. Depends on the opponent, and in this case, as is the case with golf in general, the golf course (and the architect who designed it) is the principal opponent. So Phil may need to learn from his nemesis Tiger, and pull more two-irons stinging it in the fairway, instead of grappling with gnarly rough. That may be a tough pill to swallow for the big guy. But you’d expect–or at least hope–at his age that wisdom has grown along with his shaggy head of hair.
I was talking recently with Ben Kline, a caddie at Pebble Beach and Executive Director of the Shivas Irons Society. Inspired by Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom, the organization delves into the transformational and even mystical aspects of the game, seeing golf “as an opportunity for personal growth,” in order “to support each other in becoming a higher version of ourselves.” (Check them out, and perhaps become a member, at shivas.org. I am a member, and my book, The Mindful Golfer is very much in line with their philosophy.)
Ben (as well as an assistant at Pebble’s golf shop) told me work has already begun to narrow fairways by at least 30%, grow the rough out to at least 4 inches, and lengthen tees on holes 9 and 17. The greens are currently a fast 12 on the Stimp, and they’re expected to increase to about 14 during normally dry conditions in central California in June. “The fairways will be tight and the rough will be grown out, making it pretty tough,” Ben Kline added.
So if The Marvelous Mr. Mickelson, winner of five majors, is to capture that elusive U.S. Open (similar to the gap in Sam Snead’s Hall of Fame career), he’ll need body and mind and maybe something of the mystical too be working on all cylinders. His short game is legendary, but he’ll need to play a smart long game if he is to outsmart a course that is one hundred years old this year, and remains one of the greatest tracts in the world.
Can Lefty do it? Well, he’s 48, has psoriatic arthritis, and takes a lot of chances. But the way he’s playing, and given his competitiveness and determination, I wouldn’t bet against him.