ATLANTA, Ga.—The math is simple.
Phil Mickelson has won two Tour Championships in 20-plus years on the PGA Tour. He has played on two winning Ryder Cup teams during that same time.
“Not to diminish this tournament,” Mickelson said after his second round Friday at East Lake, “but I’d rather win next week. For me at this stage of my career, that means a little more. I’d like to be part of a third winning team.”
So you’ve heard of players using the week before the Masters Tournament, say, to get used to hitting the shots they’ll need at Augusta instead of necessarily trying to win the event that week? That’s what Mickelson did this week at East Lake Golf Club.
A visit to Hazeltine National, site of next week’s Ryder Cup, by members of the U.S. squad was an eye-opener for Mickelson. He had given up the traditional shaft he puts in his drivers this season in place of one that was an inch-and-a-half shorter in hopes of hitting more fairways.
“When I got to Hazeltine and saw how long it was, I knew I needed to add some distance,” Mickelson said.
Out came the new shaft, in came the old shaft. Well, another version of the old shaft on Thursday. After a dismal performance in which he hit only one of 14 fairways in the Tour Championship’s opening round, he hit five fairways on Friday. His score was incrementally better, 72 versus Thursday’s 74, but he was exponentially happier.
“I was concerned yesterday, I’m not now,” Mickelson said. “I was experimenting with three different ones trying to get the right setting. Yesterday, the first one didn’t work out. This one did. Today was the one I’m going to end up going with. I drove it great on the back nine. I hit cuts like I did in 2004 when I drove it well and they were soft cuts I was able to swing it to the target and the ball went there. It was great.”
The great thing about Phil is his positive outlook and when he is enthused, as he often is, that enthusiasm is contagious. So he’s not in the top 20 at the Tour Championship? Well, give him credit for caring about the Ryder Cup. That’s what we want, isn’t it? Players who are passionate about that event?
Phil and Tiger Woods took some hits on that topic over the years. Phil took some more two years ago, including some from me, about going public with his Tom Watson captaincy issues during the team’s post-match press conference. I couldn’t disagree with his assessment of how the team and the pairings were handled — I wasn’t behind those closed doors — but I did disagree that he let it loose in front of the world.
Phil is a scientist. He approaches the game as a science, and in many ways that’s what it is. Dave Pelz, one of his putting coaches, is a former rocket scientist himself. Some have wondered about Phil’s approach to majors, scouting out the greens and spending an entire day on a course chipping and putting to different potential pin positions.
It’s simple science, trial and error, the same an inventor makes a breakthrough, by trying and failing in combinations until he finally hit on the right one.
The Ryder Cup matters. Not only because the U.S. has won only one of the last six, two of the last ten but because Phil was the guy who took the most hits two years ago because of his comments. Even if they ultimately proved effective, since they led to the formation of a task force and drastic changes to how the American team operates. So maybe you disagree with his method, which embarrassed Watson and the American team. It is hard to disagree with the final outcome, whether or not the task force changes translate into a better result.
He thinks he’s onto something with his shaft change. This shaft, he said, lets him drive it 18 to 20 yards farther. He thinks that distance will be significant at Hazeltine, which plays long. This is what he learned from visiting Minnesota on Monday.
“That’s why playing a practice round is so critical,” Phil said. “You realize what the course set up is, and what your bag makeup and club make needs to be. You work on the shots you’ll be hitting. You have time to prepare for those. Had I not gone and seen it, I’d be showing up there Monday or Tuesday with a short driver panicking that I need that extra 20 yards. So it was a good thing.”
Mickelson likes to be at ease and play with confidence. He’s at his best when he does that, like he did at Royal Troon and pushed winner Henrik Stenson to the final hole.
He likes to remove variables and apply his own sweet science.
Forget the stats, he said. They don’t always tell the story. He ranked 30th in strokes gained off the tee in the opening round and only 25th in the second. There is not stat for proximity to the fairway. A real scientist, like Phil, would find that annoying.
“Yesterday, my misses were huge,” he said. “Today, they were miniscule. On a normal course today, I probably would have hit ten or 11 fairways. But these things are tight, they’re tilted and they’re very difficult to hit.”
Phil expects to have a good weekend now. He always does but today, as he left the scoring cabin area at East Lake, he had the knowledge that science was on his side. He was smiling.