Shortly after finishing off a second-round 73 at the FBR Open, putting a merciful end to a miserable two days during which he was seven over par and missed the cut by seven strokes, Phil Mickelson burst into the clubhouse at TPC Scottsdale and was, surprisingly, the picture of good cheer. Every handshake and high five was accompanied with the same peppy salutation: "Happy New Year!" Never mind that it was the penultimate day of January. The FBR was Mickelson's 2009 debut and the beginning of one of the most important seasons of his eventful career. Nursing a Diet Coke as he cleaned out his locker, Mickelson described his performance with an unprintable word that rhymes with gritty, but was quick to add, "This does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm about this year. I'm excited about how I'm putting. I'm excited about how I'm driving it off the tee. Obviously I need to put in some good work this weekend, but I'm definitely looking forward to getting out there again at Torrey [for this week's Buick Invitational]."
Mickelson is nothing if not resilient. He proved that during the brutal 12 seasons at the beginning of his career when he couldn't win a major championship, a drought that was the source of endless pressroom hazing. Still, it took some work to remain upbeat after his play at the FBR, where he had as many penalty strokes as fairways hit (three) during the first round. For the tournament he made only three out of 10 putts of five to 10 feet, according to ShotLink. "I am a little surprised at how I played," Mickelson allowed, "given how my game felt coming in here."
In the week and a half leading up to the tournament, Mickelson put in man-hours with, alternately, swing coach Butch Harmon and short-game Svengali Dave Pelz. "He's never looked this good heading into a season," Pelz said the day before the FBR began. "Not only is his game sharp, but he's also bursting with enthusiasm. He is really fired up to play well." This was confirmed by other Mickelson intimates who in the weeks preceding the FBR regularly received jazzy text messages in which Phil gushed about the state of his game.
It's definitely the right time for a Mickelson renaissance because he'll be 40 next year and is in need of a triumphant final act to his career. Beginning with his breakthrough at the 2004 Masters and during the ensuing two years, Mickelson was the game's most compelling performer, snagging a PGA Championship and another green jacket. He roared into the 2006 U.S. Open chasing history only Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan had won three straight major championships but Mickelson has never been the same since his 72nd-hole collapse at Winged Foot. The resulting malaise lasted into '07 when, hoping to right himself, Mickelson ixnayed his longtime swing instructor Rick Smith, in favor of Harmon. A win at that year's Players Championship was tantalizing, but after Mickelson tweaked his wrist, the rest of '07 was a washout. Last year he was healthy but spent so much time trying to groove his swing changes that his short game suffered, particularly his putting. He finished 118th on Tour in percentage of putts made from 10 to 15 feet, and 86th on 15- to 20-footers, lengths that he calls the key to scoring. The Masters and the British Open were two of Mickelson's best ball striking weeks of the year, but shoddy putting kept him from contending at either. (In fact, he hasn't been a factor at a major since Winged Foot, which helps explain how Sergio Garcia has taken away Mickelson's customary spot at No. 2 in the World Ranking.)
"The putting problems were a function of neglect," says Pelz. "It just goes to show that even with his talent level Phil is like the rest of us if he doesn't practice his short game and putting, his touch will suffer."
Near the end of last season Mickelson strapped on various putting contraptions and discovered that his alignment was off, causing his putter to have an open face. The week after this revelation he squared his putter and rolled his rock beautifully at the Tour Championship, finishing a shot out of a playoff. Pronouncing himself finally "comfortable" with his retooled swing, Mickelson has continued to focus on sharpening his work on and around the greens. "I think this will be the year it all comes together," he says.
Pelz is even more effusive. "I'm telling you, he's going to have a monster year," he says with typical excitement. "Two majors. That's what I'm looking for."
Asked about this bullish prediction last Friday, Mickelson offered his familiar puckish smile. "Well..." His voice trailed off. Mickelson seemed to sense that it was unwise to sound overly brash on the heels of such a ragged performance at the FBR. "I will say this," he said. "I have high expectations. Very high."
Time will tell if 2009 is indeed a happy new year for Mickelson.