LA QUINTA, Calif. – If any facet of his game has plagued Phil Mickelson in recent years, it’s been his driving. In the past six seasons Mickelson has ranked better than 91st in strokes gained: off-the-tee once (2014). Last fall his driving was at an all-time low, according to statistics, and he gave up nearly half a shot a round off the tee (-0.434) in eight recorded rounds to start the 2017-18 season, ranking him 194th.
Yet Mickelson, 47, entered 2018 with new hope. His new Callaway Rogue Sub Zero driver could be the answer, he believed. The new club is four swingweights lighter than his previous driver, and Mickelson spent the offseason getting comfortable with it.
“This is actually the best I’ve driven it in a lot of years,” Mickelson said at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his first start of 2018. “…I feel like I had a nice little breakthrough. I feel like the new technology is much more stable on that Rogue that allows me to miss it not as big, and so I’m very optimistic.”
Mickelson has good reason to feel that way. He finished T-3 at the Safeway Open and T-15 at the WGC-HSBC Champions in the fall despite the poor driving numbers. He more than made up for his tee shots with his irons, wedges and putter. Mickelson entered the CareerBuilder ranked fifth in strokes gained: tee-to-green, second in strokes gained: approach-the-green and 22nd in strokes gained: putting.
Plus, he feels more prepared than this time in 2017, as a year ago he spent much of his offseason recovering from two sports-hernia surgeries.
“Last year was a tough start for me,” Mickelson said. “I had a couple of setbacks in the offseason, and I wasn’t quite as ready as I wanted to be when the season started, so I was playing without kind of the strength, speed and practice time that I wanted to. But this year’s totally different. I’ve been able to get a lot of good work in these last couple weeks, and my game feels good.”
Unfortunately, the results weren’t in Mickelson’s favor in the Coachella Valley. Mickelson shot 70-68-74 to miss the cut at 4 under and blamed his usually strong iron play for the poor finish. But as it turns out, his irons weren’t the main culprit. While he had several impressive drives, Mickelson again struggled overall off the tee, ranking 138th in strokes gained-off the tee (-1.435).
Mickelson’s words told a different story, though.
“I’ve been pretty pleased overall with the way I’ve been driving the ball and very displeased with the way my iron game has been,” Mickelson said of the week. “Usually my iron play is a lot better than what it’s been. … I feel like if I continue to drive the ball the way I am and if I get my iron play back to my normal level of standard, I should have the results that I’ve been expecting.”
Mickelson’s confidence certainly isn’t wavering. He knows he can still contend, and if he does turn the driving around, he could very well get his first victory on Tour since the 2013 British Open.
The bigger goal for the left-handed veteran, though, is keeping his Ryder Cup streak alive. Mickelson is trying to earn a spot in his 12th consecutive Ryder Cup – and 24th Cup event in a row – this year. He is 27th in the U.S. standings, nearly 800 points back of eighth-ranked Patton Kizzire. (The top eight players automatically make the team, and captain Jim Furyk will have four captain’s picks.)
Mickelson certainly doesn’t need to finish in the top eight to make the team. He’s proven his ability in recent years to contribute as a captain’s pick. In 2015 he finished 30th in Presidents Cup points and went 3-0-1 for captain Jay Haas in South Korea. Last year Mickelson was 15th in points before again going 3-0-1 to help the U.S. to a Presidents Cup rout at Liberty National.
“Phil’s always been huge,” Zach Johnson said. “He’s a player captain, he wants it, whether he’s playing or not playing he’ll push you and support you. When he’s been my partner, I’ve loved playing with him. He’s the consummate competitor.
“… You’d be lying to yourself if you said that was a mistake (for him to be picked those years).”
Mickelson, who has an 18-20-7 career record in Ryder Cups, has only needed a captain’s pick to make a national team three times in his career. But he’d rather not leave it up to the captain. Not surprisingly, he wants to make the team for this year’s matches in Paris on his own and help the U.S. win on foreign soil for the first time since 1993.
“It would be a fun opportunity to get on the team this year and try to win in Europe for the first time in 25 years,” Mickelson said.
If he drives it better, he likely will get that chance. Gwk