I’ll get right to the point: I think it’s time for Phil Mickelson to make a coaching change from Rick Smith to Butch Harmon. Here’s why: Ten months ago Mickelson was on the verge of winning the U.S. Open and making a serious run at knocking Tiger Woods from the top spot in the World Ranking. Now Mickelson is a distant fourth in the ranking and has a horde of whippersnappers gaining on him fast. The cause of the slide? Mickelson’s swing is a mess.
At 36, Mickelson is at a crossroads. To prepare for another run at No. 1, he needs to make radical changes to his swing, to his body and to his approach to playing the game. He’s still young enough to make the modifications, but he needs to start soon: The clock is ticking.
Three things seem to plague the Mickelson-Smith relationship. First, I can’t fathom why Smith, who’s worked with Mickelson for a decade, has never shortened Mickelson’s swing, which is sometimes as long and loose as John Daly’s and routinely causes Mickelson to hit wildly off-line drives and long-iron shots. Second, Smith and Mickelson just seem too close. They are not only good friends but also partners in business ventures, and their families are close as well. Such a deep friendship is almost always the kiss of death to a teacher-player relationship because it prevents the instructor from being sufficiently blunt and critical.
The third-and biggest-problem is Smith’s personality. He’s simply too nice, which I think has caused him to be more or less a yes-man to Mickelson. Phil seems to be surrounded by people who too often have told him whatever he wants to hear rather than what he should hear. For that reason alone Mickelson dearly needs Harmon, who is an authority figure in the mold of Bob Knight.
Harmon won’t be afraid to get in Mickelson’s face, tell the truth and take charge of the situation. He has always been a no-nonsense coach who speaks his mind when instructing players. I think Harmon would walk away from a relationship with a player if he didn’t feel the player was absolutely committed to his game plan.
Harmon is also the perfect technical fit for Mickelson. He has a track record of successfully shortening the swings of superstars such as Woods, Fred Couples and Adam Scott. Harmon already has an idea of what Mickelson needs to do, so if Phil teams up with him, I’d bet that within six months Mickelson’s backswing would be much more compact. (I’d also wager that Mickelson would be more fit.)
There’s no question that Mickelson is one of the most talented players in the game. His short game and hand-eye coordination are second to none, and with 30 Tour wins, including three majors, Mickelson is a lock to make the Hall of Fame. Yet he has the potential to be better, and Harmon is just the guy to help him be his best.
Tom Patri, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, is the director of instruction at Friar’s Head in Riverhead, N.Y.