It’s said that a player needs a break to win a major championship. In Phil Mickelson’s case at the 2012 Masters, it took two bad breaks for him not to win.
Mickelson did something neither Bubba Watson nor Louis Ooosthuizen did during the 72 holes of this year’s Masters tournament. He made a triple bogey. Actually, he made two, and he still only finished two shots out of the playoff and a possible fourth Green Jacket.
Not to take anything away from Bubba, whose creativity allowed him to make 19 birdies at Augusta National Golf Club without carding anything worse than a bogey. But Mickelson was the original Bubba, or the “Second Seve,” depending on your generation.
Pure Mickelson, to me, was the third shot Lefty played on No. 15 in Round 3 of the tournament. Mickelson bombed a drive down the middle of the par-5 15th, but his second shot bounced over the green, setting up one of the most delicate chip shots on the course. From a tight lie with water behind and little green to work with, Mickelson made a full slash with his wide-opened 64-degree wedge, which seemed like an impossible amount of swing speed for such a short shot. A nod to the gods? No, this shot went high enough to touch them. And when the ball came down, it landed a few feet from the cup and set up a short birdie putt that Mickelson converted in route to his third-round 66.
But with Mickelson, there are most always high highs and low lows. In Round 1, he found disaster at No. 10, a 495-yard par 4, where he hit his tee shot miles left into the trees. Despite the huge gallery that he always draws, no one was able to find his ball. If they had, Mickelson could have likely found a way to salvage at least bogey or double-bogey. But a little bad luck sent him back to the tee and resulted in a triple-bogey seven.
On Sunday, Mickelson had three chances to make birdie putts on the first three holes, but was unable to convert any of them. The leaderboard had changed dramatically in that short time. Oosthuizen holed out for double eagle on No. 2, the first deuce recorded on No. 2 in Masters history, vaulting him to the top of the leader board at 10-under. Third-round leader Peter Hanson got off to a sluggish start, falling to 7-under after three holes, three shots back of Oosthuizen and one back of Mickelson.
Mickelson said that his strategy as he approached No. 4, a 240-yard par 4, was to hit a 4 iron either on the left edge of the green, in the left bunker or even on the hill to the left of the bunker. From there, he could easily get up and down for par, he said. But his shot struck the metal railing of the grand stands to the left of the green and bounded into the trees. A shot in the grand stands would have been fine — he would have gotten a free drop. A shot that landed just short in the crowd would have been fine as well. With his short game, Lefty would have probably made at worst a bogey, probably a par. But’s that’s not what happened.
Mickelson was in a tough spot. His ball was buried deep enough that he was forced to lift his ball to identify it. Once he was sure it was his, had had to choose between three unpleasant options.
No. 1 — Play the shot right handed, and try to chop his ball a few yards forward into an unobstructed area where he could pitch over the greenside bunker and onto the green.
No. 2 — Take an unplayable lie, which he said did still not allow him to make a backswing.
No. 3 — Go back to the tee and try again (he would be hitting his third shot).
Mickelson, as he almost always does, went with the riskier shot, No. 1. He flipped his lefty club upside down and chopped at his Callaway right handed. The ball moved a foot or so forward — not much improvement. He was forced to play a similar shot, again right handed, one that almost hit him in the left leg as it scampered a few yards toward the green. Mickelson, now playing his fourth shot from tight, trampled down grass, attempted his signature super flop, but was not as successful as he was the previous round. He hit the shot slightly fat, which put him in the greenside bunker lying four. He nearly holed that shot, setting up a tiny putt for triple-bogey six.
A conservative estimate is that Mickelson’s two bad breaks cost him three shots — one shot in Round 1 where he lost a ball, two shots in Round 4 where he hit the grand stands. In reality, however, the bad breaks probably cost him more. But the conservative estimate of three shots still would have given him his fourth Green Jacket.
Should Mickelson have gone back to the tee on No. 4 in the fourth round, which should have resulted in no worse than a double-bogey on the hole? Probably. But that’s not Mickelson’s style. Fans think of Lefty as a swashbuckler — a gambler who sometimes doesn’t know when to fold ’em. But like his flop shot in Round 3 on No. 15, Mickelson pulls off shots other players can’t, and more importantly, he prepares as thoroughly as anyone to help his imagination become reality.
A good example of Mickelson’s meticulous nature is an iron shaft switch he made during the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Since the mid 1990s, Mickelson had been using Project X shafts in his irons. But at Doral, he put a set of KBS shafts in his 4-PW. The change was helped by the relationship between Mickelson and Kim Braly, designer of KBS (Kim Braly shafts). Braly was lead designer of the Project X iron shaft as well, and the person that fit Mickelson for his iron shafts more than a decade ago. In 2008, Braly started KBS, and Mickelson briefly tried the company’s KBS Tour shafts at that time. He liked the shafts in his long irons, but said his mid irons and short irons put too much spin on the ball, and opted to return to his Project X shafts.
Braly and his team worked hard to develop a lower-launching, lower-spinning product for Mickelson, which became the KBS Tour V2. The midsection of the stepped shafts is slightly wider in diameter than the KBS Tour shafts (about 0.1 inch), which accounts for the difference in performance.
What separates Mickelson from other players on Tour is the way Mickelson tests his irons. Lefty tests each club individually, where as a player like Ernie Els switched to a full set KBS shafts after hitting a few shots with his 6 iron. Mickelson’s testing process resulted in him using the original KBS Tour shaft in his 3 and 4 iron (x-flex, 130 grams, tipped 1 inch), while using the KBS Tour V2 shafts in his 5-PW. But Mickelson’s shafts weren’t the only things to change — the switch also forced him to change the lie angle on his irons. During testing, Mickelson noticed that his shots were flying more consistently, but slightly to his right at launch. Braly said that this was because the new and more stable shaft doesn’t “droop” as much at impact, and he suggested that Mickelson have his clubs bent 1 degree flatter to account for the change.
“A lot of players would have seen the ball start a little off their target line and gone back to what they were comfortable with,” Braly said. “But not Phil. He’s very excited about the new shafts, and worked hard to get them right.”
Braly and Mickelson still have some work to do according to Braly to get the 3 iron and 4 iron shafts perfect, and fit Lefty for KBS shafts in his 56-degree and 64-degree wedges.
Like the game of golf itself, equipment changes seem to be a never-ending quest for perfection for Mickelson. After all, he’s the guy who switched equipment sponsors shortly before the 2004 Ryder Cup, played two drivers when he won the 2006 Masters and played the 2008 U.S. Open without a driver in the bag. He’s not scared to try any club, and likewise, not scared of any shot.
This week Mickelson should have won his fourth Masters title, but for one reason or another, it wasn’t meant to be. But one thing’s for sure — at 41, he’s still trying to get better. And win or lose, he’s always fun to watch.
You can follow Zak on Twitter @zakkoz.
A breakdown of NCAA golf’s 2018 early-signing period
With the early-signing period for college golf ending about a week ago, I wanted to examine the numbers and see how they compared to last years. As you may remember, I reported last year that the average National Junior Golf Score Board (NJGS) ranking for a player that signed at a Division One Institution was 365. Likewise, the average NJGS for Power 5 Conference School was 114, while 52 percent of signees where from in-state. This year during the early signing period there were 173 players who signed at D1 schools. Of these the average NJGS for all division one signees was 262.6. The average for the Power 5 Conference signees was 113.76 and again 51 percent of players signed from in-state.
An important question is “what do we know about the 263-ranked player in NJGS (the average rank for D1)?” At the end of the signing period, this player was Ben Woodruff. The native of Huntersille, NC signed to play in-state for the University of North Carolina Charlotte. According to NJGS, Ben played 9 events with one top-5 finish, an overall rank of 507 and a scoring differential of .35. Historically, we see that the average Division One player has a scoring differential very close to .5 or better.
For the second consecutive year, the number one player chose a non-power 5 Conference school; Ben Wong decided to play his college golf for Coach Enloe at Southern Methodist University (SMU), located in Dallas, Texas. This means, Wong a native of Spring, Texas (a northern suburb of Houston) will be playing college golf about 3 hours north. He will also be joined by NJGS second-ranked player Noah Goodwin, giving SMU a formidable pair of recruits! Florida, Louisiana State University, Pepperdine, North Carolina and Texas also all nabbed two players each from the top 25 in their class, while UCLA grabbed three!
Among the most interesting trends in recruiting is the preference for college coaches to recruit “in-state” players. Over the past two years, the number of “in-state” signees have remained about 50 percent. This number, in my opinion, is based largely on limited recruiting budgets; less than 20 percent of schools have major recruiting budgets. Instead many coaches rely on recruiting budgets of a couple thousand dollars, which is not going to “travel” well.
It is also interesting to note that of the signees for Division I listed on NJGS, only 24 of 197 players where international. This means that international players make up 12 percent of the signees. This number is steady from the previous data collect. Of these players, Wake Forest signed players ranked 305 ad 702 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR), while UAB signed a player ranked 2476, Iowa State a player ranked 1098, UTEP a player ranked 2132 (also 325 in NJGS), Western Carolina a player ranked 3699, Stanford a player ranked 208, Arizona a player ranked 141, Colorado a player ranked 754 and 1050, Louisiana Monroe a player ranked 1524, Washington State a player ranked 3251, Northwestern a player ranked 332, Oregon a player ranked 527 and 2229 (also 291 in NJGS), VCU a player ranked 3216 (also 168 in NJGS) and George Washington a player ranked 2851 (also 276 in NJGS). The average WARG for these players is 1,558.5 (please note these represent their current WAGR rankings).
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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
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