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.
An open letter to golf
I know it has been some time since we last spoke, but I need you to know I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again.
It was just a few months ago I walked crowded isles, stood shoulder to shoulder, and talked endlessly with likeminded individuals about you and your promising future in 2020 at the PGA Show. At that time, the biggest concern in my life was whether I had packed the perfect dress-to-casual pant ratio and enough polos to get through the mayhem of six days in Orlando. Oh, how the times have changed.
On a professional level, what started with the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior progressed quickly at The Players Championship, when you ground to a complete halt within days. As much as it was a tough decision, it was the right decision, and I admire the judgment made by your leaders. Soon after, outside of the professional ranks followed suit and courses everywhere began shutting doors and asked golfers to keep away.
This is the right decision. For now and for the foreseeable future, as much as I don’t like it, I understand how important it is we let experienced health medical professionals make choices and craft policies for the wellbeing of people everywhere. Although, judging by the indoor short game trickery I have witnessed over the last 10 days, handicaps could be dropping when you finally return.
As a game, you are over 200 years old. You have survived pandemics, wars, depression, drought, and everything else that has been thrown at you. Much like the human spirit, you will continue on thanks to the stories and experiences others passed down and enjoyed.
I know you will survive because I also plan on surviving. As long as there are people willing to tend to your grounds and maintain your existence, I will also exist ready to take on your challenge.
When you are able to return in full, I will be here.
Ryan Barath (on behalf of golfers everywhere)
The Wedge Guy: Improving your short iron and wedge impact
One of my most appreciated aspects of this nearly 40 years in the golf equipment industry is the practically endless stream of “ah ha” moments that I have experienced. One that I want to share with you today will–I hope–give you a similar “ah ha moment” and help you improve your ball striking with your high lofted short irons and wedges.
As I was growing up, we always heard the phrase, “thin to win” anytime we hit an iron shot a little on the skinny side (not a complete skull, mind you). When you caught that short iron or wedge shot a bit thin, it seemed you always got added distance, a lower trajectory and plenty of spin. It was in a testing session back in the early 2000s when this observation met with some prior learning, hence the “ah ha moment” for me.
I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, testing some wedge prototypes with a fitter there who was one of the first to have a TrackMan to measure shot data. I had hit about two dozen full pitching wedges for him to get a base of data for me to work from. The average distance was 114 yards, with my typical higher ball flight than I like, generating an average of about 7,000 rpms of spin. What I noticed, however, was those few shots that I hit thin were launching noticeably lower, flying further and had considerably more spin. Hmmm.
So, I then started to intentionally try to pick the ball off the turf, my swing thought being to actually try to almost “blade” the shot. As I began to somewhat “perfect” this, I saw trajectories come down to where I’d really like them, distance increased to 118-120 and spin rates actually increased to about 8,000 rpms! I was taking no divot, or just brushing the grass after impact, but producing outstanding spin. On my very best couple of swings, distance with my pitching wedge was 120-122 with almost 10,000 rpms of spin! And a great trajectory.
So, I began to put two and two together, drawing on the lessons about gear effect that I had learned back in the 1980s when working with Joe Powell in the marketing of his awesome persimmon drivers. You all know that gear effect is what makes a heel hit curve/fade back toward the centerline, and a heel hit curves/draws back as well. The “ah ha” moment was realizing that this gear effect also worked vertically, so shots hit that low on the face “had no choice” but to fly lower, and take on more spin.
I had always noticed that tour players’ and better amateurs’ face wear pattern was much lower on the face than that of recreational golfers I had observed, so this helped explain the quality of ball flight and spin these elite players get with their wedges and short irons.
I share this with you because I know we all often misinterpret the snippets of advice we get from friends and other instructional content that is out there. To me, one of the most damaging is “hit down on the ball”. That is a relative truth, of course, but in my observation it has too many golfers attacking the ball with their short irons and wedges with a very steep angle of attack and gouging huge divots. The facts are that if the club is moving only slightly downward at impact, you will get the spin you want, and if the clubhead is moving on a rather shallow path, you will get a more direct blow to the back of the ball, better trajectory, more distance and improved spin. Besides, shallow divots are easier on the hands and joints.
If this is interesting to you, I suggest you go to the range and actually try to blade some wedge shots until you somewhat groove this shallower path through impact and a lower impact point on your clubface. As you learn to do this, you will be able to zero in on the proper impact that produces a very shallow divot, and a great looking shot.
[TIP: If you will focus on the front edge of the ball – the side closest to the target – it will help you achieve this kind of impact.]
It will take some time, but I believe this little “experiment” will give the same kind of “ah ha moment” it gave me.
On Spec: Interview with Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion
In this episode, host Ryan speaks with Trevor Immelman about his career, what it was like growing up around the game as a competitive amateur in South Africa, and what it’s like being a Masters champion.
Topics also include his experiences working with the design team at Nike Golf as well as his current “What’s in the Bag” which includes equipment from Titleist and the process he went through to get it dialed in.
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