In defense of fickle Phil

Wednesday April 7th, 2010

Today's question comes from the Masters practice-round spectator who took my media badge for an invitation to play Stump the Chump. "Why does Phil Mickelson keep fiddling with his game?" this fellow asked in an indignant tone. "Why doesn't he just stick with what made him a winner?"
I gave him the short answer: "That's just Phil being Phil."
Thirty minutes later I was enjoying the shade of the famous clubhouse oak, when an honest-to-god Philologist walked up. It was Dean Reinmuth, the San Diego-based swing doctor. Dean was Mickelson's coach when Lefty burst upon the national scene in the early '90s. Dean knows a thing or two about the Phil genome.
So, I forwarded the why-is-Phil-never-satisfied question, amending it to include Mickelson's experiments with goofy bag profiles (two drivers for the 2006 Masters, no driver and five wedges for the 2008 U.S. Open) and his penchant for working with several teaching pros at once.
"Phil didn't really change his game that much in the early stages," Reinmuth said, remembering the over-long, loose action that Mickelson brought to the Tour. "But as technology came on -- the launch monitors, the digital video, all that scientific stuff -- I think he got intrigued. On top of that, Phil is very creative. He can always imagine a better way to hit a certain shot. He's got a whole arsenal of shots now, and he takes every one of them into consideration before he pulls the club.
"That's a great thing," Reinmuth continued, "but most of the time the situation calls for your peanut-butter-and-jelly shot. You hit it in the fairway. You hit it on the green. You walk away with an easy par. You can make birdie or eagle by being creative, no doubt about it. But a single mistake can cost you two or three strokes."
Reinmuth may have been thinking of a certain third-round triple-bogey at the Shell Houston Open, which followed Mickelson's risky but endearing attempt to extricate his ball from a spiny shrub with a right-handed swing and an upside-down clubhead. But those screw-ups, Reinmuth conceded, have to be weighed against the bold, go-for-broke shots that made Mickelson a 37-time PGA Tour winner and a fan favorite.
"Players that aren't as creative as Phil will stick with what they can do," Reinmuth said. "The Asian golfers, in my experience, are less enticed by the creative shot. They'll say, 'No, I do it this way.' And that's what they practice."
Which way is better? Reinmuth shrugged. "The guys that win a lot of majors," he said, "have the ability to run a long string of pars when things aren't going too well."
That's definitely not Mickelson. But if I run into that querulous fan tomorrow, I'll remind him that Phil has captured two green jackets and a Wanamaker Trophy with his reinvent-the-wheel approach.
You don't have to be a Steady Eddie to win the Masters. You can be a Fickle Phil.

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