With so many young players dominating the scene, it’s hard to imagine that a player who will turn 48 during a tournament that bills itself as the toughest event in golf could win. But that’s exactly what Phil Mickelson will set out to do at Shinnecock Hills.
Mickelson famously has been a runner-up at the U.S. Open six times. That’s a record, and his inability to break through at his country’s national championship has frustrated both he and his fans since 1999, when he lost to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst.
Mickelson does not fit the stereotype of the ideal U.S. Open player, someone who is straight off the tee and ploddingly hits a lot of greens in regulation. His reputation is that of a risk taker, a fearless player and someone who goes for spectacular shots. But those famous flop shots and escapes from the trees blind a lot of fans and pundits alike from seeing that Mickelson’s game is, in fact, fantastically well-suited for U.S. Open conditions.
Mickelson tends to get the most prominent part of his strokes gained advantage from the same phase of this game as other elite players: approach shots. Before the start of his 13th U.S. Open appearances since 2004, the beginning of the strokes gained era, his average strokes gained approach-the-green has been 0.73. That means he is about three quarters of a shot better than the average player based solely on the quality of his iron play and shots from the fairway. That’s more than double his average strokes gained advantage off the tee, around the green and putting through the same period.
The chart below shows his strokes gained average in each of the four measured categories before the start of each U.S. Open he played since 2004, as well as where he stood in those stats heading into last week’s Memorial Tournament.
If you are a Mickelson fan and hope to see him finally win a U.S. Open, the upward surge of the purple line, which represents his strokes gained putting, should give you optimism. Mickelson never has come into a U.S. Open putting better, and his 1.18 strokes gained putting average heading into the Memorial Tournament has helped him overcome a negative strokes gained driving average. That means his performance is below average and he typically gives away strokes based on his driving.
Another putting stat that signals Mickelson again could be a factor at the U.S. Open is three-putt avoidance, where Mickelson ranks 22nd on the PGA Tour (2.22 percent). The only time Mickelson’s three-putt avoidance percentage has been lower heading into a U.S. Open was in 2003 when it was 2.15 percent, and he ranked 21st.
The expectation is that Shinnecock Hills is going to be a stern test and birdies are going to be hard to come by if the wind blows. However, if there are birdies to be had, Mickelson is the man who will probably find them. Heading into five of his six runner-up finishes at U.S. Open, he has ranked in the top five in birdies per round on the PGA Tour. The one time he wasn’t ranked in the top five, he was 11th. In fact, since 1993, Mickelson has ranked among the top five players on the PGA Tour in birdie average per round 19 times and topped the category five times.
If Mickelson is going to contend at Shinnecock Hills, he needs to drive the ball as he did at the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he averaged 0.478 per round in strokes gained off-the-tee (19th) and won. If his driving is poor, it will put more pressure on his recovery skills and putting. They might be good enough to help him make the cut, but no one is going to win the U.S. Open from the fescue. Gwk