The 10th hole at TPC Sawgrass is a bitch.
The sandpit snaking along the left side of its skinny fairway is so deep that three in-ground ladders are provided for access and egress. A lattice of slash pines and Sabal palms barricades the far end, so if you lose it left on this left-bending 424-yard par-4, the path for your second shot is clear: sideways.
Taking your medicine is the only way to survive Sawgrass.
In the third round of the 2007 Players Championship, Phil Mickelson sliced his tee ball high through the humid air and into that brutish bunker. He stood six under par, a shot out of the lead, and had 171 yards to the pin. Would he go for it? No way, was the prevailing opinion, because Gamblin' Phil, whose willingness to try low-percentage shots is legendary, had been playing a very cerebral game at Sawgrass. His newfound willingness to hit controlled, three-quarter shots even had a name: Pelz irons.
"I was quite surprised that he came to me [in December 2003] because he is perceived to have one of the best short games in the world," says Dave Pelz, a former scientist who made his bones with data-driven books such as Dave Pelz's Putting Bible. "But Phil said he wanted to save a quarter of a shot per round in the majors, and asked if I could do that. Well, I've never seen anyone I couldn't improve."
The pretournament walkabouts (sometimes several of them) that Mickelson and Pelz conduct at Augusta National, TPC Sawgrass and the sites of the U.S. and British opens and the PGA Championship are hard work caddie Jim (Bones) MacKay recalls Phil's striking putts on a green somewhere for an hour and a half and a ton of fun.
"I've never laughed as much as when I walk around a course with Phil," says Pelz. "He has a great sense of humor and a really active mind. He's probably the brightest guy I've ever worked with. He asks me as many questions about planets and the cosmos as about golf.
"It's not as if I'm teaching him to hit a flop shot," Pelz cautions. "I'm simply trying to get him more prepared. We're not learning new shots, but discovering what shots to work on and with which clubs. He used to carry a four-wood exclusively, but based on the second shots to the par-5s at Sawgrass, he'll probably have two hybrids."
Mickelson brings five wedges to tournaments and takes three into battle. His spatulalike 64-degree always makes the cut.
Early in their relationship, as they strolled the world's greatest courses, Pelz probed his pupil regarding his go-for-it style.
"It helps me win," Phil said.
"It also helps you lose," the instructor replied.
Their Sawgrass battle plan for 2007 required more work than normal because the entirety of Pete Dye's masterpiece had been scraped and resurfaced.
Ten inches of sand replaced topsoil for improved drainage in roughs and fairways, and temperature and moisture-controlling Sub-Air systems were installed beneath each green.
"They lasered the greens, but nothing is ever exactly the same," says Pelz, and the redone surfaces were a tad slower and didn't break as much as previously.
As Mickelson relearned the Sawgrass greens, Pelz wondered about the rough to the left of the 4th fairway. Was it still as thick as a mohair sweater? It was.
Would the left side of the 11th green hold like it used to? Phil hit shots to find out. And so on.
Between his proselytizing about the inadvisability of aggressive shots to conservative targets and his preaching that disastrous scores are not caused by shots that get into trouble but instead by dumb shots from trouble, Pelz recited ShotLink data. He might have mentioned, for example, that the 10th fairway was historically the hardest to hit on the back nine; that pros in the Players recorded more bogeys at 10 than on any hole on the back; and that if you don't hit the fairway there and especially if you hit into the bunker you should forget about trying to make a birdie, because it almost never happens.
But in the third round of the '07 Players, Mickelson never considered playing out to the fairway on 10, and he only half-listened as Bones recited yardages to the second-safest destination, the greenside bunker. Phil had perceived an opening high in the palms and pines, and he envisioned a flight path that would miss the trees, fade, clear the greenside bunker and grip the plateau green. He took his normal lusty swing with a seven-iron, and his ball rolled dead 30 feet, one inch from the hole. The crowd went nuts, and Lefty eventually tapped in for par. Phil and Bones had a good laugh.
"Sorry," Mickelson said to his caddie. "I simply didn't feel like telling you what I was going to do."
Now there's a bronze plaque in the bunker commemorating Phil's feat.
"I don't like risks like that," Pelz says. "He still only made par. I believe in taking a chance only when you can save a shot." The instructor pauses. "I haven't gotten him to play more conservatively."
Dave's Data: Sawgrass Trouble Spots in 2007
No. 1 Longest 30% of drives found fairway only 60% of time
No. 4 Only one in 12 players who missed fairway made birdie
No. 5 Average player lost two thirds of a stroke every time he missed fairway
No. 6 Twenty players three-putted greenhighest total on front nine
No. 7 Ranked first in double bogeys or worse
No. 8 Highest in putts per hole
No. 12 Average score for drives in rough was almost a half-stroke higher than for drives in fairway
No. 14 Players had only a 5.4% chance of making birdie if they missed fairway
No. 17 Only one of six saved par from bunker
No. 18 Only 31.6% hit green in regulation