On sundayafternoon, moments before he stepped to the 1st tee at the Players Championshipfor the most momentous round he has played in a while, Phil Mickelson offeredhis new swing coach a soul handshake and a manly slap on the back. "Thanksfor everything, Butch," said Mickelson, and those four little words addedyet another layer of intrigue to the ongoing melodrama that is his career.Butch would be Claude Harmon Jr., known far and wide by his nickname and forhis work as Tiger Woods's former instructor, most notably during Woods's runfrom 1999 through 2002, the most dominant golf ever played.
Shortly after pressing flesh with Harmon, Mickelson put a stranglehold on thetournament, playing a nearly perfect round en route to a victory that was a lotmore lopsided than the final two-stroke margin would indicate. The performanceexorcised at last the ghosts of Mickelson's disastrous finish at last year'sU.S. Open. It also helped him reclaim his rightful place at No. 2 in the WorldRanking, to say nothing of his role as the only real threat to Woods'ssupremacy. Just as important, Mickelson's rock-solid play was much-neededvalidation that he's on the right track with Harmon in his effort to build ashorter, tighter, more reliable swing.
"What's mostexciting is I feel as if we're just getting started," Mickelson, 36, saidfollowing his 31st career victory, which was worth a PGA Tour record $1.62million. "This is only week number three [working with Harmon]. In threemonths how much am I going to progress? In three years where am I going to be?I've seen an immediate difference in three weeks, and I can't wait for anotherthree weeks to go by and to start getting ready for the U.S. Open."
Ah, the Open, thetournament that is to Mickelson what the Masters was to Greg Norman--an annualpsychodrama defined by heartbreaking near misses. Mickelson has finished secondat four of the last eight national championships, and two blown opportunitieshave been particularly brutal: his double bogey on the 71st hole at ShinnecockHills in 2004 and the instantly infamous double last year on the final hole atWinged Foot. That last train wreck had a dramatic effect on Mickelson's career,putting him in a funk that lasted the rest of last year, including adead-man-walking performance at the Ryder Cup.
In an off-seasonof reflection he resolved to get in better shape and to straighten out hisdriving, spurred by the bitter memory of having hit only two of 14 fairways onthat Sunday at Winged Foot, including a particularly wild drive on the finalhole. But Mickelson is famously stubborn, and though he worked hard in thewinter with swing coach Rick Smith, he resisted making the obvious fix ofshortening a backswing that had grown nearly as long as John Daly's.
Smith beganworking with Mickelson in 1997, and in recent years there have been whispersthat he was too close to Mickelson to give him the blunt truth about the flawsin his long, loose action. (Smith and Mickelson are partners in a handful ofbusiness ventures, and their wives are best friends.)
Though theaftermath of Winged Foot had strained the relationship between coach and pupil,all seemed right in Phil's orbit in early February, when he drove the ballbeautifully at Pebble Beach on the way to tying the tournament scoring record.Following his five-stroke victory, he pronounced that he had expunged thememories of the U.S. Open, but that was wishful thinking. The real test wasalways going to be how he fared on a Sunday afternoon when his swing wasn'tperfectly grooved, and the next week, in L.A., Mickelson got a painful reminderof his frailties. Leading by a stroke on the final hole at Riviera, he blasteda loose drive to the left, made a mental error on his second shot--stop us ifyou've heard this before--then followed that under-clubbed approach with a weakpitch and a shaky putt. The homely bogey forced a playoff, which Mickelsonhanded to Charles Howell with a bogey on the third extra hole.
Two days afterthat blowup Mickelson was on the range at the Accenture Match PlayChampionship, outside Tucson. Smith hadn't made the trip, so Phil called overHarmon to look at his swing. Mickelson is many things, but naive isn't one ofthem. He had to know this would create a stir, as the large pressroom was onlya few steps from the range. Mickelson has long been known for an intenseloyalty to his inner circle, so it is a measure of his desperation that hewould put Smith in such an awkward position, especially given that theirfamilies had planned to take a ski vacation together in Aspen the followingweek.
Though Mickelsonpredictably downplayed his brief summit with Harmon, when the two workedtogether again a month later, on the range at the CA Championship at Doral, themedia began the Smith deathwatch. The speculation reached a fever pitch afterMickelson's erratic 24th-place finish at the Masters.
Part of what madeall the conjecture so juicy is that Harmon and Smith are two of the biggestpersonalities in the gossipy, cliquish, hypercompetitive world of brand-nameinstructors. Smith is slick and media savvy; Harmon has as much ego as Normanand Woods, having taken both to No. 1 in the world. A couple weeks after theMasters, Mickelson finally made the switch, with the news being delivered in acarefully worded press release.
The new-lookMickelson was on display three weeks ago at the Byron Nelson Championship andagain the following week at the Wachovia Championship. He played well at bothevents, ringing up a pair of thirds thanks to a refined swing that had aquieter lower body, less spine tilt and a backswing that most of the timebarely went past parallel, let alone grazing his shoe tops.
An interestedobserver of Mickelson's rapid evolution was Smith. "Gosh, he has lookedsolid," Smith said on Sunday from his home in Ohio, where he had watchedthe Players telecast. "He's in balance, there's not the long windup on thebackswing. He really looks under control." The irony, Smith says, is thathe had advocated many of the same changes that Harmon was getting credit for,but Mickelson never bought into it. "Sometimes you need to hear it fromsomeone else, and I understand that," Smith says. "After Phil made hisdecision, I called Butch and told him, 'I hope you get to him, and get to himgood.' Phil will always be a dear friend of mine, and I want to see him playhis best. And if he's consistently playing from the fairway, look out!"
The PlayersChampionship is a big-time event, but Mickelson treated it as an extendedspring training, grinding on the range with Harmon six days in a row, including8 a.m. practice sessions on Saturday and Sunday, each of which lasted more thanan hour and a half and were followed by long warmup sessions before his 2:45p.m. tee times. "He's really been getting after it," says Harmon."His work ethic is tremendous. He's burning to get better."
The payoff forMickelson's toil wasn't immediately evident last week, as over the first tworounds he had to save himself with his short game. During the first roundMickelson hit only five fairways, but he tied for the lead with a five-under67. On Friday he hit only six greens in regulation but salvaged a 72 and led bya shot after taking a mere 23 putts. (Over the first two rounds he made all 34of his attempts from inside 10 feet.)
Mickelson made afew tweaks during his Saturday-morning practice session with Harmon andsuddenly began striking the ball with more authority. During the third round hehit nine fairways and found the first cut on two others. With a kick-in birdieon the 18th hole, he shot an easy 69 to move into second, one back of SeanO'Hair, a talented 24-year-old looking for his second Tour victory.
Smith was notedfor rah-rah intensity, but Harmon brings a different vibe, and that was obviousduring Mickelson's warmup session on Sunday afternoon. Harmon is one of thegame's great storytellers, salty and profane, and he had Mickelson in stitcheseven as they fine-tuned various swing mechanics. Mickelson then strolled to the1st hole and buried a 25-footer for birdie to pull even with O'Hair. Phil tookthe outright lead at the 7th with another textbook birdie. O'Hair answered witha birdie at the 9th, only to fall back with a bogey at the 10th, and Mickelsonpushed the lead to two strokes with a tremendous up-and-down from 40 yards onthe par-5 11th. He was relentless the rest of the way, applying pressure toO'Hair by methodically hitting fairways and greens. (Over the first 17 holes hemissed only one green in regulation, on 14, and that was only a pace off thefringe, leaving a simple up-and-down.)
Two down playingthe par-3 17th, with its island green, O'Hair bravely hit a shot dead at theflag, but it carried over the green into the water, ending his bid.
After Mickelsonhad tidied up his closing 69--which could have been much lower but for the facthe made only three putts longer than six feet--his caddie of 16 years, JimMacKay, said, "I've never seen him play better."
Harmon, too, wasfeeling effusive. Having been kicked to the curb by Woods four years ago, Butchwas clearly relishing the notion of helping Mickelson go back to the future.Remember, it was only 11 months ago that Mickelson was a hole away from winningthree straight majors and supplanting Woods as the game's most dominant force."Phil can challenge Tiger," Harmon said. "He has the talent, and hehas the desire." What he didn't need to add is that now he has the rightold-school coach, too.
That Mickelsonhas been able to revamp his game on the fly is remarkable, but after one of thebiggest wins of his career he clearly was thinking even bigger. The flag fromthe 18th green usually goes to the victor's caddie as a keepsake, but on Sundayevening Mickelson presented it to Harmon, with an inscription that seemed likea promise: to butch, the 1st of many!
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Harmon (right) instructed Mickelson on shortening his swing, but there wasnothing wrong with Phil's short game.
O'Hair hung around the lead for 16 holes on Sunday, but then knocked two ballsinto the water at the island green.