Is Phil's Hot Start a Sign of Things to Come or Just One Last Gasp?
It seems as if we're witnessing a rebirth from Phil Mickelson.
To kick off his 2016, Mickelson tied for third at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and following a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, he was 11th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He almost stole the show at Pebble Beach en route to a runner-up finish.
Mickelson, 45, hadn't reeled off three top-11 finishes over four events since 2013. His last victory came at the 2013 British Open, and he only mustered four top 10s over the last two seasons, but right now everything seems rosy in the Mickelson camp.
But it's not enough for the modern PGA Tour. Not with the Big Three, Four, Five or however many players continue playing a game of "Let's shake up the World Ranking as much as possible." A Mickelson renaissance of sorts is happening, but how long will it last? We'll find out over the next couple of weeks.
So far in 2016, we have a man in sync with his putter, flipping that volatile Odyssey blade around like Jack Sparrow. Mickelson's 2.694 strokes gained putting at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was his best since, yes, that same event in 2012, back when he was a consistent top-10 putter on Tour. It's not just at Pebble either. Lefty gained strokes on the field in each of his first four events of the year, something he last did in 2013.
Mickelson's streaky putting has been a thorn in his game for the last few seasons, but he's rounding into form from tee to green this year. For a guy who was never supremely accurate off the tee, Phil is succeeding under the "smash it far, worry about it later" mentality, the same mind-set that pays dividends for some younger players on Tour. He's averaging more distance off the tee than ever. At 301.2 yards, it's his longest mark at this point in a season in 12 years, and he's almost 20 yards longer than he was in 2014.
What's more, Mickelson has kept himself (relatively) safe with the added distance, hitting 61% of fairways, a four-event mark he has matched just once since 2007. Of course, fairways hit does not directly lead to success every tournament, but a man who employs a world-class short game will take enhanced accuracy and distance to stray from trouble even more often. (Mickelson is avoiding a score of bogey or worse better than in any of his last 11 years.)
His improvement in multiple pieces of the golf puzzle makes major No. 6 seem feasible and fashions a playful target of No. 7. But is this four-event sample enough? And what should be made of his success on tracks where over the years he has had unqualified success?
When he tees it up at the Honda Classic this week, Mickelson most likely will be playing in the toughest field of his season. He'll be competing on a different type of grass and on a tighter course on which he has had little success. In two appearances at PGA National, Phil has made the cut once (a 17th place finish in 2015) and broken par twice.
The following week, he'll head to Doral and the WGC-Cadillac Championship, where the field rivals that of a major, and the course demands a heightened level of play. In eight rounds since the redesign of the Blue Monster, Mickelson has broken par twice and carded 74 or higher more than half the time.
Over the next two weeks, we'll see Mickelson's retooled swing and newly operative putter under a more profound microscope. Only after those tests will we know if Mickelson is going to be one of the rare stars in golf's galaxy that retrogrades, or if this remarkable start to his 24th season on Tour is simply a parallax-like burst of brilliance.