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Mickelson shouldn't have left the driver behind at Torrey Pines

Phil Mickelson, Torrey Pines
Robert Beck/SI
Phil Mickelson did not carry a driver in the first two rounds.

SAN DIEGO — Steve Flesch is one of the PGA Tour's most astute thinkers, so it made sense to solicit his opinion before the 108th U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

"I like Phil," Flesch said. "It's like the USGA set this place up for Phil and Tiger; they can hit driver wherever they want. These fairways are not normal U.S. Open width. I don't care what the USGA says — they haven't pinched the fairways since the Buick.

"At a normal U.S. Open, they're 28-30 yards wide; these are 35-40 in spots," Flesch continued. "And that first cut of short rough makes all the difference. This is the widest U.S. Open in terms of playability off the tee I've ever played."

That may be so, but we all know what happened next. On maybe the widest, and certainly the longest (7,643 yards), U.S. Open course in history, Mickelson intentionally left the driver out of his bag, hitting only a 3-wood off the tee for his first 36 holes.

Now, Mickelson is no dummy. He majored in psychology at Arizona State. He works with short-game coach Dave Pelz because he values the one-time NASA scientist's cerebral approach to the game. Fair enough. But sometimes you have to wonder if Phil's brains haven't turned to scrambled eggs.

Remember, this is the guy who needed to NOT hit driver as he tried to protect his one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, but alas, that day he wasn't carrying a 3-wood.

"I am such an idiot," Mickelson said then, after giving away the major he covets more than all others. He has four runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, but no wins because apparently the USGA's signature greens (glass) and rough (broccoli) short-circuit his synapses.

Swinging his trusty 3-wood for safety the last two days, Mickelson hit only 12 of 28 fairways in shooting 71-75. That was a half dozen strokes behind Tiger Woods, the guy with one good knee who was striping his driver right down the sprinkler line while shooting a five-under-par 30 on his second nine Friday to take this Open by the jugular.

Mickelson has gone from having a driver but no 3-wood in 2006 to a 3-wood but no driver in 2008, proving very little in the course of two years except that two wrongs don't make a right.

In winning the 2006 Masters with two drivers in his bag, Mickelson was crazy like a fox. At the U.S. Open, he's crazy like a crazy person.

Tour caddies will tell you there's one sin worse than all others combined, especially at golf's highest level: laying up into trouble. Mickelson has been laying up into trouble, and it has to be as infuriating to him as it is to his legion of fans. As at least one other writer has already asserted this morning, if you're going to hit your tee shots into the rough, you might as well hit them into the rough 30 yards closer to the hole.

In the clear light of Saturday, Lefty's fit of counterintuitive lunacy looks almost as dumb as going on record picking against Woods on a course where he's won six times as a pro.

(Okay, that was me, in the June issue of Golf Magazine. Please disregard that.)

I'm a huge Mickelson fan. By and large I don't care that he makes himself a target as a self-styled know-it-all. He claimed earlier this season to have grown an inch, the result of his rigorous stretching regimen, which was an instant classic in PGA Tour locker rooms and beyond. Hey, everybody — check out the big brain on Phil!

But maybe he has grown an inch. The only way to take Mickelson is at face value. He's good for the game. But his insistence that he can outsmart the game is rarely good for him. Of the top five Open courses where you want to leave the driver at home, Torrey Pines — with its 515-yard, par-4 sixth; 612-yard, par-5 ninth; and 614-yard, par-5 13th holes; its generous, graduated rough; its relatively wide fairways — would rank sixth.

Mickelson warmed up with his driver Saturday and had it in the bag during his round, presumably to try to make up ground on the field. (He's tied for 35th place.) But it's probably too late. He may as well go all the way now. By his own admission, Phil hasn't putted especially well this week, and any sane person would agree the quickest fix is to kill the messenger.

Yep, it's time to take the putter out of the bag.

 

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