Phil Mickelson is even better equipped to succeed at the Masters than he was when he won a year ago.
He is more confident and accomplished, having secured a major championship and coming close in the three since, and winning by comfortable margins twice in 2005. He estimates he’s 15-20 yards longer off the tee with a new ball, leaving him more shots with his four wedges into greens. And he is more deft and experienced hitting cut drives and distance-control short irons inside 150 yards.
In other words, the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone.
“I’ve been knocking (wedges) close and having a lot of short birdie putts,” Mickelson said. “That’s been the big difference.”
The improved control off the tee and into greens not only has made Mickelson more enthusiastic about golf, it has elevated him to a new skill level. The evidence is in a consistent go-low gear that he never had before because looseness led to too many bogeys. Since November, the new Mickelson has shot 59 at Poipu Bay in the PGA Grand Slam, 60 at the TPC at Scottsdale in the FBR Open, 62 at Spyglass Hill in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and 64 at Doral’s Blue Monster.
The first three set or tied course records and led to victories. The latter staked him to a lead that he held almost all the way before losing a riveting duel against Tiger Woods by one stroke in the Ford Championship. Mickelson and Woods each made 27 birdies, a career-best for both over 72 holes.
Intimates say Mickelson has gone from someone who felt he could contend every start last year to someone who feels he can win every time this year. His Tour career victory total is 25 and counting.
The seed of today’s crop was planted in January 2004, after a season in which Mickelson did not win or finish in the top 30 money winners, or win even a half-point in five Presidents Cup matches.
Short-game specialist Dave Pelz helped Mickelson dial in his short irons, and Rick Smith helped fine-tune his swing and balance for more accurate drives. Among the things he can do now is take spin off by chipping an 8-iron 135 yards with dead arms. Getting to back pins is no longer a problem. Moreover, Mickelson has improved his preparation for majors by visiting sites a week or two early for practice sessions with his two mentors, then taking it easy early tournament week.
After Mickelson won the 2004 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic for his first title in 18 months, Pelz pumped him up further. “Man, you did great and you’ve been doing this for a month,” Pelz told him. “Imagine what will happen after a year. Imagine what will happen after three years, after five years.”
After a year of brushing up what was more of a game change than a swing change, Mickelson recalls the comments and says, “He was right. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better from 150 than I was 10 months ago. I’m really, really excited about this year, the entire year. I intend to continue to work hard in that area to try to get better and better with those short irons, and I intend to stay working a lot with Rick to keep the swing sharp so that I get the ball in the fairway. If I stay on top of those two areas, I feel like I’ll continue to improve rather than hitting a plateau.”
Mickelson came within eight strokes of winning the 2004 Grand Slam outright, five shots from the Slam through playoffs. That, he said, made him “believe I’m very, very close to breaking through and having an exceptional year in the majors, as opposed to the (record) I have now (21 top 10s, one victory).”
He won the Masters largely because he led the field in greens in regulation, hitting 53. He made 16 of those putts for birdies, including five on the last seven holes, to outduel Ernie Els by one stroke. That night, he and his wife, Amy, celebrated in part by taking a “cool” drive down Magnolia Lane.
About his only problem that afternoon was inabiltus jumposis, Latin for White Man’s Disease. It would be a leap to say Mickelson leaped after the winning 18-foot birdie putt went down at 18 and crowned a last-nine 31. Not much air separated feet and ground.
“I will take to my grave my belief that the cameras just did not catch me at the apex of my jump and believe that it was always higher than people saw,” the lefthander said, playing along.
One April later, Mickelson says the length he has gained off the tee should enhance his chances of repeating at Augusta National. And altering his closet.
“My main goal right now is to try to get that lonely jacket a little buddy to hang with,” the remade golfer said.