Open spot in Phil Mickelson’s trophy cabinet

Phil Mickelson played well in Abu Dhabi but his focus this year is the US Open at Pinehurst. Picture: Getty
Phil Mickelson played well in Abu Dhabi but his focus this year is the US Open at Pinehurst. Picture: Getty
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There’s one major Phil Mickelson has yet to win but things may work out in his favour this year

ONE week ago, Phil Mickelson left the Gulf region in the comfort of a private jet feeling, no doubt, a wee bit disappointed. No more than that, though. Yes, he came up one shot short in what was his second attempt to win the Abu Dhabi Championship. But, after eight weeks of competitive inactivity, the Open champion was clearly more than pleased to have performed so well. No one in the field made more birdies.

Still, with all due respect to one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the European Tour, Mickelson has bigger things on his mind. With three-quarters of golf’s Grand Slam (the Masters, Open and USPGA) taken care of, all that remains is the US Open, an event in which he has famously finished runner-up on six occasions.

On paper at least, 2014 looks like being the 43-year-old Californian’s best shot at completing golf’s most coveted set. This year, the US Open will be played on Pinehurst’s No.2 course, a recently restored layout boasting no rough. None. In a championship synonymous (and not in a good way) with the golfing tedium that is long grass, the game’s most interesting hazard – short grass – will dominate proceedings, especially around the infamously difficult up-turned saucers that double as Pinehurst’s putting surfaces.

In theory, such a scenario should play right into Mickelson’s gifted hands. No one in golf has a softer touch around the greens, an attribute that will surely give him a sizeable edge over the vast majority of the field gathered in North Carolina at the end of August.

On the other hand, will all the pre-championship press he will inevitably receive be too much of a distraction?

“If everyone was to miss every green in this year’s US Open, my chances of victory would be enhanced,” agrees Mickelson. “But 2014 will really be no different from any other year. I’ve been close so often in that event. And I’ve always talked about what has happened in the past, good and bad. Plus, it’s no secret, I’m not going to deny I want to win the US Open more than any other event. It’s obvious. So I don’t think it’s a big deal that people know how I feel.

“I had to deal with a lot of attention before every major before I won one. Now that I have, the same level of attention is there only before the US Open. So I know what to expect. It’s fine. I will prepare as I always do and work out a gameplan.”

It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with on the (Dornoch-born) Donald Ross design that already has a special place in his heart.

Back in 1999, Mickelson recorded the first of his six US Open second-place finishes behind the late Payne Stewart.

“The reason I like Pinehurst so much is the run-offs around the greens and the closely-mown areas,” he says. “So short game is a real factor. Back in 2005, they had problems with the grass. Around the greens was very sandy. It was almost like playing from a bunker. I couldn’t chip from that. It killed me. I fatted every chip, or flubbed it, or bladed it. So I had to putt. And that took away a lot of the edge I typically have over my competition.

“The restoration will help me, I hope. I like that there won’t be any rough. Chances are, I will be able to recover better from the sandy waste areas than I would from long grass. I hate wedging out. But, in all honesty, I tend to hit a lot of fairways at US Opens.

“Last year at Merion I hit a boatload of fairways. It’s not as if I can’t cope with US Open conditions. I can play when the fairways are narrow and the rough is thick. Yes, I will have to play a bit differently from what I normally do. But I will enjoy that.”

Mickelson, of course, has long been famous for the depth of his preparation for specific events and shots.

Last week he waxed long and lyrical about the super-duper new Callaway driver in his bag, a club he maintains will transform both his accuracy and length off the tee.

“I spin the ball more than almost anyone else on tour,” he reveals.

“As driver heads have grown, the center of gravity has moved back and up in order to help the average guy get the ball up in the air. But that doesn’t help me. I already spin the ball too much.

“If you gave me a driver with, say, 10-degrees of loft, I would spin the ball at 3500rpm. That’s way too high. The ideal is about 2200rpm. But what this new ‘gravity core’ technology does is move the centre of gravity forward, but lower. That lowers my spin rate by as much as 600rpm. So I don’t have to decrease the loft or change the lie of the club, I can take it as is. This is another dimension to my driving. I can make the same swing I use with my 3-wood or my irons.

“I am still having to adjust in how I ‘see’ shots. Before, when the wind was blowing right-to-left I would see the ball starting right then drifting on the breeze. Now, I’m hitting draws into the wind and the ball is flying almost straight.

“That takes some getting used to, but it makes sense. Now that I can use more loft, it is easier for me to square the face at impact. I don’t have to worry about blocking shots to the left.”

Hmmm. . . Based on how he drove in Abu Dhabi, all of the above remains a work in progress for a man who has never been prominent in the “fairways hit” statistical category. Which is not to say that improvement is not imminent. Mickelson has never been afraid of hard work in an effort to get better.

“I started working with [short game coach] Dave Pelz in 2004,” he continues. “He has been instrumental in changing the way I play. A few years ago I was outside the top 100 on tour in bunker play. Now, how far do we think the average bunker shot is? Dave told me it is ten yards. So I spent the next year practising ten-yard bunker shots. Nothing else. And I went all the way up to third on tour in bunker play. All because I was practising what I was most likely to have on the course. I wasn’t wasting my time. That’s just one of 30 things he has helped me with.”

Despite his long-held devotion to improvement, Mickelson – one of the most naturally gifted players on tour – would be less than human were he not to at least briefly bemoan the technological explosion that has largely levelled the playing field at the sharp end of the game.

“Last year I went out with persimmon woods and old Titleist Professional balls,” he says with a smile. “I couldn’t believe how much smaller they were. People don’t realise that balls today are much bigger. I hit some drivers and put the results on the launch monitor. I was surprised. The old balls were probably a bit ‘dead’ but they were shockingly shorter than today’s.

“I’d love to see us using the old stuff in a one-off tournament. I played with those clubs and balls but most of the young guys won’t have. The perimeter weighting of the balls today is on the outside. We used to have more weight in the liquid centres, so the outer part was much lighter. Now, the core doesn’t spin as fast and so doesn’t move so much off line. But I don’t mind the modern ball. You just have to move with the times.

“That’s a constant for every player. When they brought in the new groove rule, my chipping was affected. I had to ‘see’ a different chip and play for more release. I had to play for angles more often on my approach shots because I didn’t want to ‘short-side’ myself. I just had to adapt.”

One thing that has never changed is Mickelson’s appetite for competition. A man not averse to a wager, he lives to challenge himself.

“I love to compete,” he confirms. “It doesn’t matter what it is. My kids are the same. We have some pretty intense Monopoly games. My wife Amy is like me in that way too. And my golf allows me to focus a lot of my energy into practising and competing week-in and week-out. The game is the one thing I’m able to do at a high level against great competition. I enjoy every aspect of it.”

That works both ways, of course. No one in golf is more fun to watch. And this year, whatever happens, promises to be even more eventful than usual. In the wacky world of Phil Mickelson, it was ever thus.