Tour Confidential: Will Phil Mickelson have a career year in 2014?

January 31, 2014

Should we buy what Phil Mickelson is selling in 2014? What kind of driver and putter inventory do you have? How would you fix the WGC Match Play Championship? The SI Golf Group convened a panel of experts — SI senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, special contributor John Garrity and a PGA Tour player who took part upon the condition of anonymity — to tackle these questions and other topics in this Tour Confidential Extra.

1. Do you agree with Phil Mickelson’s prediction that he might have a career-best year in 2014?

John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: The only safe prediction you can make about Mickelson is that he'll surprise and entertain. I'll wait and see.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Given Phil's ability to pick football games with stunning accuracy, I'm jumping on the bandwagon early.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil is most dangerous when you count him out. [Wife] Amy is in the depths of her cancer fight and he wins the Masters. After he implodes at Merion last year, you think he'll crawl into a hole. Then he wins at Muirfield. Whenever he seems primed to do something, he slips on a banana peel, as at Winged Foot or that U.S. Open in his backyard at Torrey Pines.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Or in a bush in Abu Dhabi that cost him a triple bogey and the tournament a couple of weeks ago.

Anonymous Pro: Exactly. I love Phil. He could sell glasses to a blind man. He based his optimism on the hype of his new driver, which didn't perform worth a darn in Abu Dhabi. It doesn't matter what club he's using, he still hasn't fixed his sloppy lower-body action, which is what causes his inconsistent ball striking.

Shipnuck: Phil is a salesman, no doubt about it. His iron play and his short game were fantastic last year, and he knows if he can drive it more consistently, he'll be dangerous.

Anonymous Pro: Phil is the ultimate momentum player. When he's hot, he's lava hot. When he's off, thank God he's got a short game. The average Tour player wouldn't have broken 80 from where Phil drove it the first day in Abu Dhabi. Phil shot one over par.

Van Sickle: Then he got lava hot on the weekend and made tons of birdies. He could have, or maybe should have, won that event. He looks like the same old Phil, which I mean in a good way. Phil is the crossword puzzle that you never quite finish.

Anonymous Pro: How many times over the last few years has Phil proclaimed he's found the best driver ever? He did it at Phoenix last year when he had this 9.5-degree driver and blitzed the field. A month later that was out, and he had that Phrankenwood. That was out a month later, and at the Open he was hitting a hot 3-wood. He said he "found it" off the tee three different times last year, and none of them lasted more than a month.

Van Sickle: So does he have a major in him?

Garrity: He still has the game and the desire. He's been second six times at the U.S. Open, he wants that career Grand Slam, and expectations will be at their highest at Pinehurst. I think it'll be too much, but I'd never sell Mickelson short.

Shipnuck: A U.S. Open course without much rough is basically a chipping contest. There's never going to be a better setup for Phil than Pinehurst. We're building this Open up as the defining tournament of his career, and if he wins, it is. If he doesn't, he'll just come back the next year because Chambers Bay is a good one for him too.

2. How many drivers and putters do you own?

Van Sickle: Does anyone besides our Anonymous Pro own an anchored putter?

Garrity: By anchored putter, do you mean a putter I tossed into the ocean?

Van Sickle: Very clever. I mean a belly or a long putter.

Garrity: No.

Anonymous Pro: Oh, really? You guys are all purists?

Van Sickle: Well, I putt with a claw grip, and Bamberger switch-putts like Notah Begay. Purists? Not exactly.

Bamberger: I would use a long putter, but it requires more hand-eye coordination than I have. I find that difficult.

Van Sickle: Nobody picks up a long putter and says, Man, I'm making everything. They require months of practice. But I have seen guys pick up belly putters and start pouring in putts.

Bamberger: I was just cleaning out my locker room, which is what my wife calls the back of my car. I had a set of 13 clubs, one E-club and five drivers and five putters. That's just what I keep in my car.

Anonymous Pro: I have about 15 drivers because I give away a lot of them. My thing is putters. I probably have 140.

Van Sickle: How often do you switch those out?

Anonymous Pro: Every month or so. Hey, they're all going on waivers if they're not working.

Shipnuck: I've used three, maybe four putters in my life. That's one club I don't want to have to worry about.

Bamberger: After Graeme McDowell won the Open at Pebble Beach, I bought a Bullseye putter from a guy selling surfboards and putters at a gas station. I asked Corey Pavin, who used a Bullseye most of his career, if Bullseye putters had loft on both sides. Without blinking Pavin said, "Let me guess, you're one of those people who putts long putts righthanded and short ones lefty."

Shipnuck: He looked right through you and saw your soul!

Bamberger: By the way, the answer was yes, there is loft on both sides of a Bullseye.

Garrity: I rarely change putters; I've had an Odyssey mallet forever. I've got six drivers, though, counting my old Toney Penna persimmon, which I'll probably never use again.

Shipnuck: Three or four friends have my old drivers. I could reclaim them like a repo man in the middle of the night, but once I switch drivers, I give them away so I won't be tempted to go back. Having just spent a week in Carlsbad for an equipment story, FedEx is probably now in possession of two or three of my future drivers.

Garrity: Once your buddies find out, you're going to have company, Alan.

Shipnuck: Probably. There's a good chance that I'll soon be swinging a new 12° driver.

Bamberger: Don't tell me you've gone to 12°!

Shipnuck: Numbers don't lie. I was hitting it longer.

Van Sickle: That's the latest trend. Manufacturers have found that by moving the driver's center of gravity forward, the ball launches with less spin, which is good but lower. So they compensate by adding loft. So our driver lofts are going up.

Shipnuck: Two dozen players at the Sony were using 10.5° drivers. Three used 12s.

Van Sickle: Sounds like it's time for all of us to update. I'm glad I thinned the herd of clubs in my basement by donating a bunch to the First Tee. I'm down to four backup drivers and a half-dozen emergency putters.

Shipnuck: That should be the First Tee's new slogan — growing the game one discarded club at a time.

3. Accenture is dropping out as sponsor of the WGC Match Play Championship in Tucson. What would you do to tweak the event?

Van Sickle: The winners-only lid-lifter at Kapalua has been struggling. Merge it with the Match Play and hold it at the end of February in Hawaii.

Shipnuck: Then players would have to go from Hawaii to Florida the next week.

Van Sickle: That's not really a big issue; they've got private jets. Plus, only four guys are still around on Sunday at the Match Play. The rest of them can fly home early.

Shipnuck: Two so-called World Golf Championships are set in the cosmopolitan cities of Tucson and Akron. Come on, the WGCs need to get out of the country. Tuck the Match Play into Asia or South Africa or the Middle East.

Garrity: No, no, no. The WGC should go to a country with a genuine golf infrastructure that has been underserved — Argentina. It's got hundreds of courses, ranges and golf shops and has major champions like Angel Cabrera and Roberto de Vicenzo. Buenos Aires Golf Club or the Jockey Club would be nice venues.

Anonymous Pro: Move the Match Play to Doral now that Donald Trump has made the course a lot tougher. Doral was one of the most boring courses on Tour before. The Blue Monster? There was no monster out there, just a lot of birdies. Move the WGC event at Doral to later in the year, and give it a full field of 144 players. Meanwhile, half of the Match Play field lives in Florida and could drive to Doral.

Van Sickle: There would be an issue with conflicting sponsorships, but what if you passed around the Match Play? One year the John Deere Classic hosts it instead of its usual stroke-play event. The next year, Honda or Innisbrook. It would be a great way to cycle the best players to tournaments they don't necessarily play.

Bamberger: That's a great idea, but don't just do that in the U.S. Move it all over the world on all of the tours.

Garrity: I like it.

Shipnuck: It's got to go overseas. Put more world into the World Golf Championships.