Tour Confidential: Would a conservative Phil Mickelson win more tournaments?

January 22, 2014

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Phil Mickelson starts his year with an impressive T2 at Abu Dhabi, but he had the lead on Sunday and mucked up the 13th hole with a double-hit, triple bogey from a bush. Everyone loves Mickelson’s go-for-broke style, but would he win more if he took a more conservative approach?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He would have fewer wins. A golfer has to be true to himself. His aggressive play has cost him some, won him more and made life more interesting.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): For every questionable play that Phil makes, there's at least one spectacular shot that leads to victory. I'm thinking pine straw, 13th hole, Augusta National, 2010 Masters.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): That's just Phil being Manny, to mix up an old saying. But saying Phil would win more if he played more conservatively is like saying Mickey Mantle could've hit for a higher average if he hadn't swung for the fences. Phil swings for the fences. People love that about him. Phil's the football coach who goes for it on fourth-and-1 on his own 27. That's who he is.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Phil's swashbuckling persona makes a fun storyline, but I think the impact of his "aggressiveness" has been overstated in both his wins and losses. Phil has won majors with the help of carefully devised strategies (two drivers; Phrankenwoods) and hot putting as much as he has won them with derring do. And he has lost them with poor swings (I'm thinking, among others, of the wedges at 13 and 15 on the back nine at Merion this past year) and sloppy putting as often as he has hurt himself with overly ballsy decisions. It's fun to have Freewheelin' Phil as a subplot, but I don't think it would stand up to in-depth statistical scrutiny to the extent that we are made to believe.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Much like Arnold Palmer in his prime, Mickelson wouldn't have had as much fun or be as motivated to play if he adopted a more conservative style — and we certainly wouldn't have been as entertained. Could he have won another 20 tournaments and a U.S. Open or two playing it safe? Probably. But would he have won the 2010 Masters without pulling off stunts like his 6-iron from the pine straw between the trees? Probably not. It's hard to argue with 42 wins and five majors.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Well, he probably would've won at least one of those U.S. Opens, but how many of his victories would have become near-misses with a different style? Phil's place as one of the game's best 10 or 15 players ever is secure. I want to see him keep going for broke from now until the day he retires.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Maybe, maybe not. But for all of our sakes, I pray he doesn't. The guy is simply too entertaining, win or lose.

2. Rory McIlroy got slapped with an after-the-fact, two-stroke penalty for an illegal drop on Friday. A competitor's caddie reported it. McIlroy called the rule, about having to take complete relief, "stupid," but blamed himself. Are all of these arcane rules an integral part of what makes our game great, or are they an unnecessary impediment to enjoying and growing the game? Further, do you have a problem with the other player's caddie calling the incident to the attention of the officials?

SHIPNUCK: The caddie was helping Rory — he was afraid the penalty might come to light later and Rory would be DQ'd. What's wrong with that? Pro golf needs a lot of rules because so many unusual things happen in the course of a tourney. But beginning golfers need only one rule: play the ball down. Understanding red and yellow stakes is helpful, but if you're not sure, just drop the ball close to the hazard and be done with it. Everything else is pretty much common sense.

PASSOV: I used to be enamored with the whole "golf-is-better-than-other-sports-because-we-call-penalties-on-ourselves" thing. Now I'm just tired of these endless rules snafus. Golf needs to re-write its rules, make them much simpler, and have everybody who plays be able — and choose — to follow them. Now, unlike the snitches that dial up tournament and Tour offices when they think they've seen something amiss on their high-def TVs, I have no issue with a guy who's a critical part of the action — a caddie in your group — reporting something he thought he saw.

GODICH: There are plenty of stupid rules in golf. That's no excuse not to know what they are — especially with the money that's at stake. It continues to amaze me that so many players are so careless with the rules.

SENS: I don't think they are an impediment to growing the game because the average weekday golfer doesn't let rules minutiae stand in his/her way. Certainly not enough that it sours their experience. Pace of play, cost, inaccessability. Those are impediments to the people golf hasn't reached yet, and the people it has turned off. Sure, some rules could be modified, and the one that McIIroy got slapped with certainly seems like one of them. But on the whole they're not what diminish the game. As for the caddie, I suppose you could take the purist's defense, that he was upholding the integrity of the game. But given the details of the story, he comes off as a weenie.

VAN SICKLE: The main thing in golf is to get it right. If that means another caddie has to speak up or a TV viewer has to call in to get it right, so be it. Justice should be served. Some of golf's rules are stupid. They could and should be simplified. That said, Rory should know the rules to the T. Just like Tiger should. There's no excuse.

RITTER: Some rules are more arcane than others, but here's the thing: professional golfers need to know them. When they don't, these things happen. The free drop from the crosswalk exists solely to help the player, yet McIlroy botched it. There's no excuse. And I'm fine with anyone inside the ropes alerting rules officials to a potential violation. Players are too focused on themselves to catch everything.

BAMBERGER: It is a stupid rule, but it is not an obscure one for a Tour player. What the caddie did was the right thing to do, painful though it was all the way around. Rory won't make that mistake again, and maybe the rule — which isn't really needed — can be eliminated.

3. Patrick Reed set a PGA Tour record by starting with three consecutive 63s while Zach Johnson challenged by shooting 62 on Sunday. Do you enjoy watching birdie-fests like this or do you prefer events where par matters?

SENS: Birdie fests are all well and good in early season events like this, which don't have the same prestige and suffocating pressure to hold our interests and require fireworks instead. But in the majors, you want to see guys shine or wilt in the crucible, grinding it out, not gliding to double-digit red numbers. And, to golf's credit, that is pretty much what we get.

SHIPNUCK: I like a mix. The occasional birdie-a-thon is fine, but more challenging courses make for more compelling viewing.

RITTER: I think it's great that Bill Clinton is involved in a PGA Tour event. It's cool that Humana emphasizes health and fitness. Maybe the media center ice cream bars were even replaced for one week with avocados. These are all good things. But this event was not fun to watch, and it's because the courses weren't a match for the field. Birdies can be exciting — look at Masters Sunday — but they need to find a new venue to stage this thing next year.

VAN SICKLE: Golf is fun when it's close and there's an exciting finish. It doesn't matter what the score is. Given a choice between a winning score of 28 under par or six over par, I'll take the 28 under. I'll take some high wind and rain, though, because that's when these guys are able to showcase their shotmaking.

GODICH: I don't mind the occasional birdie-fest, especially at this time of year, when those of us in colder climes are starved for golf.

PASSOV: I prefer events where par matters, but there's nothing wrong with the occasional red number parade. It shows how awesome these guys are on a normal golf course, and it would be deadly dull if even-par were the winning score every week. I especially like the low scores with the early season events in resort country — Hawaii, Palm Springs, Scottsdale, where you're supposed to be having fun in the sun.

BAMBERGER: Man cannot live on dessert alone, but it is nice now and again.

4. President Bill Clinton, a passionate golfer, hosted the Humana for the third-straight year. If you were PGA Tour commissioner, who would be your dream celebrity tournament host?

RITTER: I want someone to create buzz, attract a good field and make the whole thing fun. Give me Bill Murray as host at Riviera. That event needs some juice, and Murray could still continue his usual shenanigans at Pebble.

SHIPNUCK: Justin Timberlake. He's passionate about the game, he's young and hip, and he has cool friends. Even the Tour couldn't mess that up. Right?

VAN SICKLE: Celebrities aren't the larger-than-life icons that they used to be, probably thanks to the proliferation of entertainment news shows and the Internet. The likes of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Paul Newman, Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson aren't out there anymore. Robert Redford is maybe the closest thing we have to an old-time movie star. With Jack Lemmon and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra gone, I can't name an obvious replacement. Bill Murray, maybe.

BAMBERGER: Billy Payne.

GODICH: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Brad Leland, Taylor Kitsch — everybody from the cast of Friday Night Lights. Man, do I miss that show.

SENS: Zzzz. Celebrities. Gone are the quaint days when a crooner or a film star or a comedian could really move the needle at a Tour event. But forced to choose, I'd go with Larry David. Unless Stephen Colbert golfs.

PASSOV: For the "I-just-want-to-be-in-the-same-room-with-him" factor, I'll take Sports Illustrated 2013 Sportsman of the Year Peyton Manning. He seems to be equal parts common touch, humor and supreme athletic prowess, and is also a big-time golfer. To attract Hollywood types, George Clooney is a heavyweight in the biz, an award-winner who appears to have the respect of all of his peers, but his politics might be too left-of-center for PGA Tour brass. Oh, wait, Humana has Bill Clinton…

5. Tiger Woods returns to action this week at Torrey Pines, one of the three PGA Tour venues where he’s won eight times. (Bridgestone and Bay Hill are the other two.) He’s also won seven times at Doral and five times at the Memorial. What does it mean that almost half of Tiger’s 79 Tour wins have come at the same handful of venues?

SHIPNUCK: It means there's only 13 or 14 courses he plays every every year and it makes sense he's dominated on a handful of them.

GODICH: It means that Tiger is the best player on the planet. Think about this for a minute: Even if your throw out all of his victories at those five venues, he'd still rank in the top 10 in career PGA Tour victories.

VAN SICKLE: It means Tiger sure gets lucky a lot. Horses for courses is true, and that's one big darn horse. He knows what he likes and that's where he plays. It's smart.

RITTER: It means that he likes playing the same venues. Nothing wrong with this — he's earned the right to cherry pick his schedule — but it would be great for golf, and the lower-wattage events, if he added a Open to his plate more often.

SENS: What it means is that Tiger plays a limited schedule and cherry picks his non-majors, which, more than often, puts him at courses that suit him best. That said, the fact that he keeps winning as often as he does — despite injuries, psychic struggles and probably most important, much greater competition than any other candidates for greatest player ever — only further solidifies him in my mind as the most dominant golfer of all time.

BAMBERGER: It means he is a creature of habit. I wish he would mix it up, but that's not in is nature.

PASSOV: When Tiger likes what he sees, the other guys are playing for second.

6. In the February issue of Golf Magazine, Johnny Miller, Steve Stricker, Annika Sorenstam and many others share the best golf advice they ever got. What’s the best golf advice you’ve ever received?

SHIPNUCK: "Hit the inside of the ball." Courtesy of Tiger Woods.

SENS: Play fast and don't whine.

VAN SICKLE: I liked what Paul Azinger said in a Golf World column I ghost-wrote for him years ago when he said, essentially, don't believe everything you read instruction-wise in Golf Digest. Even though he was being paid by the Golf Digest Co. to do the column. Readers loved the piece, but the bigwigs at the magazines were irate.

PASSOV: In honor of Bob Hope's tournament, I'll toss out this nugget: When Hope asked Arnold Palmer how he could cut eight strokes off his score, Palmer replied, "Skip one of the par-3s." Honestly, I've been fed some fantastic tips over the years to help with shots or situations, but most lasting is something I read as a kid. Sam Snead once advised to grip the club as if you were holding a baby bird in your hands. The gist of it was to hold on just tight enough, but with a gentleness and lack of tension. To me, tension is ultimate swing-killer, so I try to go back to that as often as I can.

BAMBERGER: Take a two-week break from the game and then quit altogether. That, and breathe.

RITTER: One of my old high school coaches used to always say, "Swing through the ball." Not even sure what this means (where else would I swing?), but now that I think about it, my scores haven't improved at all since high school … Was this question meant to be depressing?

GODICH: Don't quit your day job.