Forget Tiger's major push – Phil's the man to watch

The Scoop

Expect the unexpected has been Phil Mickelson's mantra for the past three decades. And don't expect anything to change any time soon, explains Mark Townsend

On June 15 of last year lots of us were done with Phil Mickelson. This was the day that he chose to break into a little jog on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills, which was strange enough on its own, before hitting his ball on the move.

His explanation was a shambles and it then took too long for anything even slightly resembling a proper apology to come out.

Just three and a bit months earlier his confidence was sky high after the WGC victory in Mexico, and with it the proud boast that a 50th win on the PGA Tour was pretty much a formality.

“Oh, I will get there. I don’t know when. I don’t have the month or the time but I will get there.”

Even with 49 wins in the satchel it was an odd thing to say but this was ‘only’ Mickelson’s 43rd win on tour. Now, following his Pebble Beach heroics, he’s up to 44.

A loss of form, and maybe a bit of karma, saw the rest of his 2018 season peter out. While his old adversary Tiger Woods was getting himself back in the winner’s circle at East Lake amid scenes that seemed too far fetched for a Hollywood blockbuster, Phil the Thrill was propping up the field 24 shots in arrears.

The following week his 12th straight Ryder Cup appearance ended with a shake of the hands with Francesco Molinari on the 16th tee after seeing his tee shot end up wet. If anything summed up the American performance and disposition for the bulk of the week it was this.

Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk

Worse was to come with more whinging over the course set-up where his pre-match chat went from this: “I think it’s an incredible course. I think the consensus amongst all the players is that it’s a wonderful test. The set-up is as good as it could possibly be. It’s just in pristine, immaculate shape, and yet provides a very good challenge that’s a fair challenge. I think it’s a wonderful test.”

To this, a few days after the seven-point drubbing: “The fact is, they had brutal rough, almost unplayable, and it’s not the way I play. I don’t play like that. And I’m 48. I’m not going to play tournaments with rough like that any more. It’s a waste of my time. I’m going to play courses that are playable and that I can play aggressive, attacking, make a lot of birdies, style of golf I like to play.”

To make matters worse there was also The Match which brought about his introduction to social media and some particularly erratic (and nauseating) behaviour.

Phil’s done, we thought. He’ll slowly but surely dribble away and, while we’ll look forward to seeing his face at Augusta and The Open in the years to come, he’s pretty much a blusted flush.

Mickelson will be 49 in June this year. We all point to Vijay Singh being the best advert of someone being competitive after they turn 40 and, while he collected a whopping 22 wins after leaving his thirties, the last of them came at the age of 45.

Only nine times has a player in the history of the PGA Tour won a tournament aged 48 or over and Fred Funk has accounted for three of those.

I spoke to Trevor Immelman in Abu Dhabi and asked him how hard it was to keep doing it year after year like a Mickelson.

“I don’t think that it gets appreciated enough. When you start understanding the fickleness of golf and the minutiae of playing well and all the little bits of a puzzle that need to be put together in order to play a good tournament, it’s insane,” Immelman said.

“The things that drive a guy with my personality crazy so for a person to be able to fit those pieces of a puzzle together week after week, year after year for decades is fascinating.

“There are these pitchers who are absolutely amazing but if they have four or five innings and are having a rough night, then they just get pulled out. We don’t have that ability, we’ve got to document that round and post it up there. If I feel uncomfortable about my second shot on 17, I can’t just call you in.”

So, for all that comes with the Mickelson package, I keep finding myself going back to him. He’s a bit like an old girlfriend who you can’t quite shake from your thoughts; it doesn’t work and there’s too much history but you still find yourself wondering…

Mickelson has got us all thinking about him again. We shouldn’t be surprised as he’s done this his whole career. His whole mantra is to expect the unexpected from his recovery shots to his patter to his wardrobe.

But his enduring stamina is phenomenal and he’s, even at the age of 48, still making some impressive gains with his swing speed. On Thursday he made his own little piece of history.

Enjoy here how he says the word “fourteen”, twice, even though there were only 13 fairways to hit with three par 3s in place at Monterey.

And the reason for this might surprise you.

“At the end of last year, even though I played poorly, I had something happen where it seemed like overnight, it had really been a year in the works, where my driver sped, it shot up five, six miles an hour, which rarely ever happens to anybody, yet alone somebody in their late 40s.

“Before you could even try to swing faster you got to get in the gym and work your stabilising muscles around your spine or else you’ll get hurt immediately, like you’ll get hurt in the first two days. Then you’ve got to build up your strength and explosiveness and then you got to retrain your governor and your swing to get that to be faster and it’s a lot harder the older you are. It takes a lot of time to get there and then all of a sudden overnight it works.”

So not just over-swing your driver and go at it that much faster then. There’s more from the 48-year-old who has also just started working with a new nutrionist.

“I also did a bio-mechanic study and looked at the kinematic sequence of my swing, how the muscles fire, what order, how to strengthen that, where I’m weak, where I’m strong and work on the weaknesses all the little details of it. It’s been a lot of work. It’s not like I could just say, hey, go do this and you’re golden.”

On Saturday he did this at the 14th at Pebble Beach, a hole that he has barely reached in the past.

His description of what went on was full-on Mickelson weird: “The drive on 14 was a hellacious bomb. That thing was way out there. That thing was pretty nasty. And I went after it pretty good.”

Not, “Yeah, got hold of that one”, but an “hellacious bomb”. What’s he like? Why’s he not winding down before getting ready to give everyone a shoeing on the Champions Tour? Why does a part of me think he’ll not only contend in another major but actually win one?

Forget all the chat of Tiger and him getting off his 14 wins, the king of surprises might just be revving up for one last major hurrah.

And if he does manage that he’ll eclipse Julius Boros and become the oldest major champion in the history of the game.

This year’s US Open is at Pebble Beach, where Mickelson now has five wins. Nothing’s straightforward with old Lefty – don’t write him off yet.

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