Teaching pro Rick Smith was being facetious, we think, when he said
recently that his coaching of Phil Mickelson for next week's U.S.
Open could be boiled down to a few simple, if redundant, maxims:
Stay healthy. Yield at all intersections. Stop at all stop signs.
Wear your seat belt. "I think they're are going to be really
important between now and then," Smith said with a chuckle.
So we went to Mickelson's other coach, short-game specialist
Dave Pelz, and asked what advice he has for this year's Masters
champion as they prepare for Shinnecock Hills. "I offer what I can
when I can," Pelz said. "I'm a very small cog in the machine."
O.K., Smith and Pelz can afford to be humble. When Mickelson
practiced last week at Shinnecock, he gave Smith two strokes a side
and his full attention as the Michigan-based pro dispensed swing
tips and strategic advice. On Saturday, Mickelson played with Pelz
at his side, lingering at every green to analyze slopes and study
blades of bentgrass with the best-selling instructional author and
Golf Channel icon from Austin. Smith and Pelz, along with caddie
Jim (Bones) Mackay, make up Team Mickelson--a.k.a. the Gang That
Helps Phil Shoot Straight.
"We're not plotting the strategy for Phil in any real sense," Pelz
said before his ramble around Shinnecock with the world's
fifth-ranked golfer. "He's still calling all the shots; he makes
all the decisions." To an outsider, in fact, Mickelson's brain
trust seems to have only one function: encouraging him to trust his
brain. When they point out, for instance, that Shinnecock's
links-style topography and Long Island site make it vulnerable to
buffeting winds, they aren't telling Mickelson anything he doesn't
already know. (He tied for fourth in 1995, when Shinnecock Hills
last hosted the Open.) Mickelson is also aware that superintendent
Mark Michaud and the USGA have gone over the course like an
invading army of Huns, cutting trees, clearing vines and hauling
off undergrowth that used to block the wind. You put those two
things together--a windy site and a course setup that encourages
rampaging zephyrs--and you take away Mickelson's bread-and-butter
shot, the high fade.
June 14, 2004
"If that happens," Pelz says, "I would hope that Phil would start
smoothing it and hitting the ball with less spin, keeping it lower
and playing the bump-and-run. I'm perfectly happy to see a player
choke down on his driver, tee the ball low and hit it 200 yards in
the air, letting it run for 50 or 75 instead of trying to carry it
290." The upside of a gale for Mickelson, Pelz continues, is that
he has the skill and the imagination to chip and putt well when
other players are crying uncle. "On greens as fast as we'll see at
Shinnecock, a little sidewind of five to 10 miles an hour can move
the ball three or four inches off line on a six-to eight-foot
putt," Pelz says. "So it's critical that your third shot on a
hole--your lag putt or your chip shot--be reasonably close to the
pin. It's very difficult to make eight-to 10-foot putts in the wind
on fast greens."
Smith is similarly sanguine about Mickelson's prospects if the wind
blows--even though Mickelson has never had a top 10 finish in a
British Open, where breezy links are a given and where Phil once
shot a memorably bad third round of 85 at wind-ravaged Royal
Birkdale. "The thing that Phil has now is great control of his
trajectory," Smith says. "He can keep the ball down nicely. In
fact, Phil's arsenal is so deep now that he can hit any shot that
he wants, anytime he wants. Left to right, right to left, high or
low, he can hit all of them."
Another thing that Mickelson doesn't need between now and June 17,
his coaches agree, is a history lesson. He hasn't forgotten that in
'95 he played Shinnecock's par-5 16th hole like a drunken whaler,
making two bogeys and two doubles over four rounds. "He's looking
to get that hole back," Smith says, "but when you're playing in an
Open, you don't look at only one hole."
Unless you're human. The 16th is a 540-yard ribbon of grass
freckled with more than a dozen fairway bunkers. The green is
surrounded by even more sand, and severely sloped--as were
Mickelson's shoulders in '95 after he made 7 there in the final
round to fall out of contention. "The difference now," Smith says,
"is that Phil has more control. The dispersion of his tee shots and
fairway woods is a lot narrower, so we haven't seen those wild
shots." Smith's prediction: "I think you'll see him play the hole
As for the other 17 holes--well, Team Mickelson expects us to
divine their tactics by looking at Shinnecock's unique challenges
and applying the whimsical maxims quoted above. For example....
Yield at all intersections. Unlike most classic courses, Shinnecock
has very few straight-ahead driving holes. "The tees are laid back
in the fescue," Smith points out, "and there's a diagonal fairway
that you have to hit your ball to. You have to be able to work the
ball both ways to fit it into these very narrow landing areas." To
illustrate his point, Smith cites the par-4 18th hole, which sweeps
left and uphill a daunting 450 yards to the clubhouse. A misshapen
tee shot consigns the golfer to tall grass or a deep fairway
bunker. Even a benign miss, to the wrong part of the fairway,
forces the player to hit a long iron or fairway metal up to the
Stop at all stop signs. "There are places on every course where you
really don't want to hit it," Pelz says. "You'll do about anything
to avoid one of those places--even lay up and play for a bogey,
hoping to make a lucky par putt. Because while it's rare that you
can win a tournament in one hole, you can lose it in one hole."
One such no-go zone at Shinnecock is the sand to the right of the
green on the par-3 7th. That's because the putting surface, modeled
after that of the famous Redan Hole in North Berwick, Scotland,
slopes away and to the left. Any ball approaching from the
right--whether hit from sand or the grassy slope--will tend to roll
until it encounters sand or long grass on the other side.
Pelz's advice to Mickelson, if he should find himself at one of
these stop signs, is to look both ways (and maybe even backward)
before proceeding. "In times past I've seen Phil try miracle shots,
but there's less margin for error on an Open course," he says.
"Even if you execute perfectly, the ball may not bounce and bite
and dribble the right amount, and all of a sudden you're in real
As proof that he is learning this lesson, Mickelson points to his
Masters win--specifically his unspectacular but
less-than-catastrophic play on the par-5 13th. "The pin was
back-center on Friday, and I missed the green long and right," he
says. "In the past I might have gotten too cute with my third and
maybe left the ball in the swale, making 6. Instead, I chipped and
let it roll down 50 feet, two-putted and made my par." Mickelson
adds, "Dave and Rick have really helped me identify places you
can't go and where to accept bogey."
Wear your seat belt. According to Smith, the typical golfer, "even
a Tour player, when he's not playing his best," aims at a target
not knowing if his shot will miss to the right or to the left. "You
visualize a draw, and it either goes way right or way left--it
either hooks or blocks. That's a big disadvantage."
The atypical golfer--say, Jack Nicklaus, who won four U.S. Opens
between 1962 and '80, or Lee Janzen, who has been a surprise winner
of two Opens--learns to control his misses, taking one side of the
fairway out of play. "Nicklaus was great at managing his ball,"
says Smith. "There were times he might not have been hitting it
that well, but he managed his way around because he knew his miss
was never, ever, going to go left. It was the same with Lee. He hit
it like a needle when he won those Opens, but if he missed, it was
always slightly right, never left." Smith believes Mickelson is
close to achieving a similar state of grace.
Pelz wants Mickelson to have that same belted-in feeling from 60
yards and in. "There are lots of elevation changes around the
greens at Shinnecock," he says, "and the ball runs away from the
greens in many cases. Phil can hit any short shot you can name, but
the question is, Which one will work the best on that day from that
Does that mean Mickelson will shelve his famous flop shot, as he
did at Augusta, and go for the hole with ground-hugging shots? "The
situation will dictate what shot he hits," Pelz replies. "Phil's
short game can win for him if he trusts it, but he shouldn't depend
on it to save him from disaster when he takes chances and puts
himself in difficult positions."
There is a danger, both coaches admit, in giving a golfer more
advice than he can pack in either his brain or his bag. They also
understand that a player's true nature tends to express itself
under Open pressure. So what does all this portend for Mickelson at
Shinnecock? Will he be the go-for-broke desperado whose wayward
drives and reckless recovery attempts took him out of contention in
last year's Open at Olympia Fields? Or will he be the shrewd course
manager who pipped Ernie Els at Augusta?
Or a little of both? "It is an art to play golf, and Phil is an
artist," Smith says. "You should never take that from a player.
We've tried to make his swing more solid, so when he's aggressive
he's not going to hit those big, wide shots. It's a more controlled
aggression." Translation: Phil will be Phil.
Pelz, meanwhile, sums up with the observation that fast, firm
conditions and a surfeit of wind will make Shinnecock a
Phil-friendly track. "See, a lot of Tour players don't like it when
it gets really difficult," Pelz says. "I love it because the more
the wind plays a part, the more players are going to miss greens
and the more important the short game becomes. That lets the true
talents like Phil rise toward the top."
Assuming they stay healthy.
Phil's Arsenal is so deep," says Smith, "that he can hit any shot
he wants, anytime he wants. Left to right, right to left, high or
low, he can hit all of them."