IRVING, Texas, April 26 — Phil Mickelson hit nine of 14 fairways, tied for 45th in the 154-man field, on the way to a first-round 69 at the EDS Byron Nelson Classic on Thursday.
More importantly, his caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, came off the course raving to Phil's wife, Amy, about how well their man had hit the ball. So naturally the first question from the press corps to Mickelson was whether he owed the improvements to his new coach, Butch Harmon.
"It's hard to say," Mickelson said. "But we're working on obviously driving the golf ball, and I felt that I drove it much better, which was a good sign. Hopefully as the week goes on, I'll improve and get better, and as the month goes on and so forth."
On a day when all eyes were on Mickelson and his new swing on the TPC Four Seasons Resort Course, Sean O'Hair shot a 5-under 65 on the easier Cottonwood Valley course to take the lead by a shot over Anders Hansen (TPC) and the defending champion, Brett Wetterich (TPC). But as it turned out, O'Hair also found himself talking about his coach.
After getting off to a bumpy start this year under the tutelage of Gary Gilchrist, O'Hair went back to his old coach, Steve Dahlby, after the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
"He came out to Shell Houston and we started working again," said O'Hair, who won as a rookie at the 2005 John Deere Classic but had a lackluster sophomore season. "And just immediately the chemistry was there and it started clicking."
O'Hair came into this week having strung together four consecutive top-15 finishes. Mickelson has had less success of late, fading into the pack after a win at Pebble Beach and a sudden-death loss to Charles Howell III at Riviera the next week. Working with his longtime coach Rick Smith, he thought he'd cured his killing driver miss, the left-to-more-left shot that torpedoed his all-but-assured victory at the U.S. Open. But it crept back into his game at Riviera and was problematic at the Masters as well, where he finished out of the top 12 (T24) for the first time in a decade.
The resulting coaching change was hardly unprecedented. It's hard to feel what's going wrong in a swing, so most Tour pros rely on coaches, who themselves rely on video.
Tiger Woods has gone from Rudy Duran, his first coach as a tot; to John Anselmo, who monitored the Great One's teen-age years; to Harmon, with whom he reached a level of play at the turn of the century that will never be matched; to his current second set of eyes in Hank Haney.
Bob Estes, who like Mickelson shot 69 on Thursday, said he's had "six teachers since I was 14." His current coach, Craig Koy out of Highlands Ranch, just south of Denver, was here working with Estes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Billy Andrade, who shot 70 on Thursday, started with Davis Love Jr., father of Davis Love III, then switched to Rick Smith when Love died in a plane crash in 1988. Andrade stuck with Smith for about 10 years, but he switched to Billy Harmon, Butch's brother, when Smith started devoting much of his time to his star pupil, Mickelson.
"(Smith) was becoming increasingly busy," Andrade said after his round Thursday. "And I needed some attention. Rick's almost like a big brother to me, but it was 1999, and he was starting to work with Phil a bit more than some of his other guys, so I went to Billy in 2000. I'm a Harmon boy now. Swing teachers are (here today, gone tomorrow) like college basketball coaches. Sometimes it's good to hear someone else's voice. I think it'll be a good change for Phil."
Time will tell.