10 Things Phil Mickelson Did to Improve, and You Can Do Too

I've been fortunate to see Phil Mickelson's rise to greatness from up close. Phil and I worked together extensively early last year and in the weeks before each of the year's majors. I can help you understand what he changed in 2004, so you can take your own game to the next level this year.

  • First, a stat that sums up Phil's 2004 season. Everyone knows he won The Masters, but did you know that Phil beat World No. 1 Vijay Singh by a combined 34 strokes in last year's five biggest events (the four majors plus the Players Championship--see "The Phil Factor")?
    The Phil Factor
  • Here is how the top four players performed in last year's biggest events
  • Player
    (World Rank)
    The Players 280 284 287 285
    Masters 279 286 280 290
    U.S. Open 278 293 287 290
    British Open 275 285 274 281
    PGA 282 280 281 285
    Total Strokes 1394 1428
    *As of 11/1/04
    He beat Tiger Woods by 37. Phil was in contention to win all four majors as he played the 72nd hole. By taking five fewer shots, he could have won the Grand Slam. In short, he played the big events better than anyone.
  • How did he do it? Here are five things Phil changed last season. Some I helped with, some I didn't. Work on them and you'll elevate your game, too.

    Hone your short game
    Phil's wedge game has always been strong for three reasons: 1) His mechanics are good. 2) He has bountiful talent. 3) He practices a lot. But in 2004, Phil and I worked on eight different occasions, six to eight hours a day, hitting wedges to distances we knew precisely, fine-tuning his feel for the difference between, say, a 100-yard shot and one from 98. His control became very good, and I expect it will become great in the next few years.
  • To sharpen your wedge game, make sure you know the distance to your practice targets, so you can learn the correlation between your swings and the distances you get from them. Practice from 20 to 130 yards to identify your best and worst distances. Once you know the tough ones, focus on clean contact and acceleration through impact. Double-check that your ball position is correct and that your follow-through is longer than your backswing.
  • Be a smarter gambler
    Phil Mickelson is instinctively a go-for-it player, and always will be. Last year, though, he decided to be more conservative in his strategy, while maintaining an aggressive execution of that strategy. The change has served him well. If you remember, when he came to the 72nd hole at The Masters, an uphill 480-yard par 4, he needed birdie to win. Even though he was driving the ball well, he chose a 3-wood off the tee, upping his odds of hitting the fairway. Conservative strategy with an aggressive execution. It worked for Phil, and it will work for you.

  • If you think you may play too aggressively, I have a test for you. Devote a round to playing "ultra-conservative golf." Commit to swinging at 85 percent of your normal effort off the tee and play farther away from hazards; take more club and swing 85 percent on par 3s. By the end of the round, this strategy will either feel comfortable or it will drive you crazy. Your natural style will be obvious.
  • Keep misses to one side
    With Rick Smith, his full-swing coach, Phil has worked diligently to eliminate missing shots to the right (and hazards on the right side of the course). He has given up a little distance in developing a gentle fade, but he hits more fairways now. The better he drives the ball and the fewer greens he misses right, the lower his scores.

  • To learn a "one-sided" game, ask a teaching pro to help you groove a slight draw or fade--not both! To choose one, ask yourself this question: For a million dollars, right now, one swing, would you try to hit a draw or a fade? Build your game around that shot. Once you know which way your misses go, the fairways will look wider and the greens bigger.
  • Pick the right ball
    Do you know which ball has the best distance, spin and trajectory for your game? Phil did some experimenting last year and chose the Titleist Pro-V1 over the Pro-V1X. Even though it tested slightly shorter off the tee, it helped him stop his short shots consistently closer to the hole. We have continued testing in this area, and Phil recently switched to the Callaway HX-Tour ball, which is giving him the best distance control to date.

  • Test your driver and wedges the same way Mickelson did, because there's one ball that is best for you. You want distance off the driver, but also spin and carry-distance consistency that let you optimize control inside 100 yards. Work at it and you'll find the ball that fits your game in both areas, just as Phil has done.
  • Adapt and conquer
    Every course tests golfers in its own ways, particularly around the greens. Phil and I spent long hours walking around each major venue the week before the tournament, trying to learn which greenside shots worked best for him. Then he and Rick walked another day to evaluate the best lines and shots for his long game.

  • Try this kind of analysis on your course. You might be surprised by what you learn. There might be a hole where you consistently drive into a bunker or miss the green to the right. Hit various clubs and shots on that hole until you figure out how to avoid that bunker or stay out of trouble right. Six times in a row is a good rule of thumb. If you can hit a smart, safe shot half a dozen times, you'll have figured out your best play. The next time you get to that hole, you'll have more confidence than ever before.
  • 5 More Ways To Step It Up
    1. Get In Shape Phil has vastly improved his stregnth, balance and stamina by working out under the watchful eye of trainer Sean Cochran. Work on improving your body--ideally in concert with a fitness specialist.
    2. Find the Best Putter For Your Stroke Before his first tournament last year, Phil used a test I developed to compare one putter to another. (Go to the Pelz Golf Institute section of Once we knew his blad putter--old 8802 shape--worked best, he committed to it for the year.
    3. Improve Your Green Reading Phil has used a learning aid called the Putting Tutor all year. It helps him start putts on-line. He also worked hard on his lag putting. Even the great players go for help with their putting. Go to your pro, or come to one of our schools, but don't try to fix your own putting problems.
    4. Get Good Advice "Bones" Mcay might be the best caddie in the game. He's a fine player and has a great attitude. Phil even sent him read greens. Bones can give an independent opinion in the heat of battle. Point is, listen to your caddie or the best player in your group, but make the final decision yourself.
    5. Add New Shots Phil used to be a high-ball hitter--almost exclusively. Now, after countless hours practicing different trajectories, he can play a wide variety of shots. Expand your ball-flight arsenal by learning to hit low bump-and-run shots as well as high floaters.

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