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.
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