Golf’s Greatest Party, better known as the Waste Management Phoenix Open, is an annual exercise in Things You’ve Never Seen Before.
There was a bevy of new entries last week at TPC Scottsdale, most of them taking place at the par-3 16th, golf’s rowdiest hole. Urged on by the always vocal gallery, caddie races sprouted up, as loopers sprinted from tee to green—most with staff bags still slung over their shoulders. Brent Henley lost a heated race to his brother Kip, after Brent stumbled and did a flip near the green, looking like laundry in a dryer.
By Sunday the caddie races had become passé. That’s when “Gangnam Style” made its golf debut. James Hahn, a South Korean–born American, made a birdie putt at the 16th and did his best hoss-ridin’, banjo-steppin’ Gangnam impression. Hunter Mahan borrowed from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and kissed his biceps after a successful putt. And Irishman Padraig Harrington played his tee shot to 16 in the third round, then kicked a few Super Bowl souvenir footballs into the stands.
Nothing, however, could top what happened at the 10th tee during the second round on Friday. Phil Mickelson kissed his driver. “Yes,” he sheepishly admitted later, “I gave it a little peck.” That Phil is having a love affair with his driver, the club that has tormented him throughout his career, is Man Bites Dog stuff. See Winged Foot, 2006 U.S. Open, and this five-word phrase for details: “I am such an idiot.”
This is no joke, but it is Philarious. The proof is in the scores. All Phil did last week was lip-out a putt for 59 in the opening round, miss the PGA Tour’s alltime 54-hole scoring record by one (189), shoot 28 under par for 72 holes and lead from wire to wire for his 41st PGA Tour victory. Poor Brandt Snedeker. It was the wrong week to be 24 under. All it got him was his second runner-up finish in two weeks.
Just when we were ready to pack him up and ship him off to be on display at the World Golf Hall of Fame, just when we were ready to cede the stage to Rory and Tiger, Phil suddenly looks more formidable than at any other time in his career. Your attention, please: Mickelson is going to win more major championships. (Note the plural.)
Why? “Are you kidding me?” asked caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay. “The driver. He’s driving it like a machine!”
Two days before the start of the tournament Mickelson received a new Callaway RAZR Fit Xtreme driver, and by Thursday he was pounding it so long and straight that he came within two near misses on the last two holes from shooting 58. Mickelson has always struggled to control his driver because his high clubhead speed imparts tremendous spin on the ball. He would compensate by using a less-lofted model and tilting his swing plane so that he was swinging up at the ball. The new driver imparts much less spin, allowing Phil to use more loft (much easier to hit) and make his iron swing instead of having to tilt his body.
“Now you’re seeing me extend my driver swing down the target line,” Mickelson said. “It could really be a revolutionary club for me. The strength of my game is my iron play. If I can drive it like this as easily as I have, I feel like it’s going to make a monumental difference in my game. I could potentially play some of the best golf I have ever played.”
Mickelson, a four-time major champion, has been a factor in many of golf’s big four events over the last decade, even though he has finished better than 160th in driving accuracy only once. Imagine a world in which Mickelson (or Woods, for that matter) is an efficient driver or, at the very least, his wildest shots have a much smaller dispersion.
That’s not the only reason to be bullish on Phil. At 42, he’s slowly inching away from his go-for-broke mentality and replacing it with a sort of conservative aggression. When he shot that first-round 60, he was dying to post in the 50s—the only time he has done so was at the 2004 Grand Slam of Golf, when he shot 59—but on the final two holes he didn’t go for broke on his approach, hitting wedge shots he made sure to keep below the hole. Smart plays. The last birdie putt, for 59, lipped out so forcibly that a stunned Bones slumped in disbelief to his knees, then to his elbows.
Another reason to stand behind Phil is his iron play. Wild drives, occasionally questionable decisions and erratic putting (he’s using a modified claw grip now and rolling it great, by the way) have overshadowed the fact that other than a prime-time Tiger, nobody stacks more approach shots closer to the hole than Phil. In Scottsdale he led the field in greens in regulation and proximity to the pin.
Mickelson doesn’t often rank so high in greens or fairways hit, but no matter how poor his numbers are, he’s usually among the top 15 in birdies per round, often the top five. This is a fact: Phil is one of the best iron players from the rough. The easy punch line is, He should be; he gets enough practice. Golf is about scoring, and Phil is a great scorer because his iron play combines with a great short game and deadly mid-range putting. Simply put, he knows how to get the ball in the hole. Tiger is his only peer in that class.
Mickelson’s challenges these days are his psoriatic arthritis, which he doesn’t discuss so we have no idea how much it affects him, and the fact that his type of genius bores easily. It’s also worth noting that in the last 15 years, Darren Clarke (42, at the 2011 British Open) and Ernie Els (42, at the ’12 British) are the only players who have won a major at Mickelson’s age or older. But playing for history lights Phil’s fire, as does squaring off with his career rival, Tiger. And whether you’re playing Candyland, H-O-R-S-E or a $100 Nassau, he lives to beat you.
“He’s so freakin’ competitive,” Mackay said. “You can never question how much he wants to win a golf tournament at age 42. Never.” This is a good time to be Phil. It may be about to get even better.