When Jay Haas used his final captain's pick to add Phil Mickelson to the U.S. Presidents Cup team, he cited Mickelson's vast experience in team events and the outpouring of support from other pros on the squad. Phil’s reputation and popularity may have been enough to punch his ticket to Korea next month, but can he recapture his old form when it counts?
Between 2004 and 2008, Mickelson won three major championships and nine other PGA Tour events, finishing in the top six in scoring average every season. During this peak from age 33 to 38, Phil was clearly one of the three best golfers in the world, and while he fell to 10th between 2009 to 2013, he still won two majors and six other tournaments over those five seasons and remained an obvious contributor to team competitions. But since his 2013 Open Championship victory, Mickelson hasn’t won a single event in 45 attempts and rarely finds himself in the hunt.
A good way to measure overall performance is to look at how often a golfer beats the field average by 15 or more strokes over the course of an event. Past research indicates that players win an average of roughly a third of tournaments in which they play that well. Between 2009 and 2013, Mickelson reached this elite level fifteen times on both the PGA and European Tours (about 13 percent of his starts). In 2014 and 2015, he only played that well twice in 40 events (about 5 percent of his starts) and both of those performances came in majors -- at the 2014 PGA Championship and 2015 Masters.
Of course, this level of decline is not uncommon among golfers in their 40s, as the average player tends to lose one full stroke between ages 35 and 45. Mickelson’s scoring average has gone from 69.3 between 2004 to 2008 to 70.4 in 2014 and 2015. Thus, his decline with age has been exactly what we would expect based on the career trajectories of other golfers.
Also typical of most aging players, Mickelson's decline has been concentrated in his long game (approach shots and drives). Based on Mark Broadie’s Strokes Gained stats from PGATour.com, Mickelson declined from +0.9 strokes gained per round on tee to green shots in 2009-11, to +0.7 strokes gained per round in 2012-13, to +0.4 strokes gained per round in 2014-15.
Mickelson's touch with his irons and wedges has also failed him lately. The PGA Tour’s proximity to the hole stat measures how close, on average, each approach shot comes to the pin. Phil’s numbers have declined across every distance (wedges, short irons, and long irons) between 2009-13 and 2014-15. He struggles to control his approach shots more than he once did, resulting in fewer birdie opportunities and tougher two putts for par.
What’s worse, Mickelson's ability to recover from drives into the rough, the talent that bolstered the legend of "Phil the Thrill," has all but disappeared. In fact, in each of the last six seasons, his rank in proximity to the hole from the rough has been better than his rank in proximity to the hole from the fairway. But that magic seems to have escaped him this year, as he is now one of the PGA Tour’s worst players coming out of the rough. Simply fixing that part of his game might provide the spark he needs to be a positive contributor in Korea.
There are reasons for optimism. Evidence suggests that Mickelson can raise his game in the most important events. He has clearly reversed his poor career record in team events over the last three Presidents Cups and last three Ryder Cups -- winning 16 points over 25 matches. He also remains one of the best at raising his play in major championships. Over the last eight seasons, only Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy have a better scoring average in majors than Mickelson.
He'll have to rediscover that big-game magic in Korea, or his most important contributions will come in the clubhouse.