What Makes Phil Tick?

November 11, 2013

How does he do it? How did Phil Mickelson have this monster 2013, which started with an opening-round 60 on his way to victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February and reached its unlikely apotheosis during the Summer of Phil, when he won the Scottish and British Opens? How has he turned the tables in his Sunday duels with Tiger Woods? What makes Mickelson tick, even as he plays with psoriatic arthritis at age 43?

Short answer: His body may have more aches and pains, but his mind is as supple and spongy as ever. Mickelson sometimes gets zinged for being a know-it-all. But it's more accurate to say that he simply never bought the idea that learning should end when school does. And never has his unquenchable thirst for knowledge paid off more than it did this year.

"Phil's one of those guys, if he senses that you know something that he doesn't, he's going to pick your brain about it until he feels like he knows the subject too," says PGA Tour Player Brendan Steele, who along with partner Keegan Bradley plays (and usually loses) Tuesday practice-round matches against Mickelson and an invited guest. "I once mentioned that I'd done some white-water rafting and really enjoyed it. Before you know it, he's peppering me with questions about white-water rafting. He wants to know. He wants to understand."

Gary McCord, who is a member of Whisper Rock, the Scottsdale, Ariz., club where Mickelson designed his first course, knows Mickelson as well as most. The longtime CBS broadcaster laughs about the day they got into a discussion about the rotation of the earth vis-à-vis gold-mining activity. "I keep asking him, 'Why didn't you graduate summa cum laude at ASU?' " McCord says. "He's got a photographic memory. I remember Mike Shanahan, when he was coaching the Denver Broncos, we were talking one day and I said, 'Phil knows more about your fourth-string offensive guard than you do.' Sure enough, I talked to Shanahan later and he goes, 'You're right! It's unbelievable!' Phil's mind goes way too fast to be good at school."

Mickelson's active intellect is more than just the source of a few fun anecdotes. He has found a way to turn his thrilling ideas and connections into lower scores in the big moments. Consider the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston in September. All eyes were on the threesome of Phil, Tiger Woods, and Adam Scott. "Tiger, Adam, let's have some fun," Mickelson said on the first tee. Then he shot an electrifying outward nine of 28 on the way to a first-round 63.

How did he do it? He has never spoken about it publicly, but his rivalry with Woods turned in Mickelson's favor soon after the left-hander began working with Woods's former swing coach Butch Harmon, who filled Phil in on Tiger's tactics for head-to-head play. Among the strategies Harmon reportedly dished on is Woods's tendency to walk slowly with fast players and quickly with slow players; putting out first to set his large galleries in motion and create a distraction; and getting to the tee last to allow fans to clap the loudest and the longest for him. Harmon has said Tiger's tricks are now transparent to Mickelson and his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay. Head to head in the final round at Pebble Beach in 2012, Mickelson dusted Woods by 11 shots and won the AT&T.

Still, Mickelson's study of Woods may go even deeper than that.

"In my opinion, Phil knows he's not going to be the greatest golfer of his era," McCord says. "So Phil went, 'I'm going to be everything Tiger isn't. I'm going to go after his negatives. I'm going to be cordial with the people, sign autographs, have my family out there at all times. I'm going to create real good bonds with the CEOs.' He became the anti-Tiger. Now whether he did that on purpose? Phil's pretty clever, and I've never asked him. But you can sure see it."

The anti-Tiger playbook is only one of many pieces of new information Mickelson has put into play. Others can keep it simple; Mickelson wants to know everything. "I'll filter it," he tells his caddie, his coach, his clubfitters, his accountants. He is a legend at the Callaway test center in Carlsbad, Calif., where he can hit a ball and then tell the engineers and clubfitters what numbers are on the launch monitor — not down to the exact digits, but closer than they've seen.

Mickelson noticed that he hit his 3-wood straighter than his driver. Plenty of Tour pros have observed the same thing about their own games. But only Mickelson was determined to have his cake and eat it, too, so he worked with Callaway to develop a "hot" model that goes as far as most players' drivers (far right). He put the club in play for the first time at the WGC-Cadillac at Doral last March, and on crosswind holes he was moving it as far as playing partner Bubba Watson was hitting his driver.

"We knew for the last three majors of the year that that wood was going to do it pretty much all the way through," says Mackay. "It's the most productive club he's ever had, by far."

Consider Mickelson's mesmerizing run in July. After frustrating near-misses at the Wells Fargo Championship (third after weekend rounds of 73-73), the FedEx St. Jude Classic (T-2) and especially the U.S. Open (T-2), he broke through at the Scottish Open, beating Branden Grace in a playoff for his first victory since Phoenix. Then he left the field gasping for air at the British.

At Muirfield on Sunday, Mickelson reached the par-5 17th in two with what Mackay calls "two of the longest 3-woods you'll ever see. And that's right-hander's hole. It's a dogleg left. Phil not only had to hit two incredible shots, but he had to hit them on an incredibly aggressive line. And no one knows better than Phil that Paul Azinger lost the '87 Open driving it in the left fairway bunker there, when he made six and ended up losing to [Nick] Faldo by a shot."

The British was the ultimate test of whether Mickelson could learn and adapt. He had to lower his high ball flight, tone down his go-for-broke mentality and find a way to make putts on slow greens. In victory, most players will say things like, "I knew I had it in me" and "It's a process." Mickelson indulged in no such palaver at the British. He spoke of having to remake his game around a foreign style of play and admitted that even he wasn't sure he could do it. Winning the Scottish told him not only that he could reinvent his playing style, but that he already had.

Sunday at the Tour Championship in September marked Mickelson's 1,692nd official round on Tour. That's a lot of golf. But although he finally won the Claret Jug, he still has goals. He's never been No. 1 in the world, and the U.S. Open remains as elusive as ever. In fact, it's even more tantalizing, because it's the only major left for Mickelson to win. You could almost see his mind working as he sat on the dais at his winner's press conference at Muirfield, talking about how the career Grand Slam is "the sign of the complete, great player, and I'm a leg away. And it's been a tough leg for me."

Mickelson was engaged, thinking aloud, beginning to ponder his own golf game as it relates to the setups of the USGA's majordomo Mike Davis. The process will pick up speed, nuance and meaning as June approaches, and with it the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where in 1999 Mickelson finished a shot behind Payne Stewart. As Mickelson said, it's been a tough leg — but he keeps chewing on it. He is, in this way, a golfing version of another curious fellow.

"It's not that I'm so smart," Albert Einstein said. "It's just that I stay with problems much longer."

Anyone feel like betting against Phil Mickelson now?

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