Slip Sliding Away
Phil Mickelson's controversial choice to bench his driver becomes the latest chapter in his puzzling U.S. Open career
On the driving range Sunday at Torrey Pines, Phil Mickelson was hitting driver, warming up for his 9:20 a.m. tee time in the final round of the 108th U.S. Open. This was not where the hometown boy expected to be Sunday morning—an afterthought after the most exciting Saturday in the championship's history—or that the club he was hitting would once again be the focus of another painful U.S. Open defeat. Yet on this Father's Day, the mood was light. "Hey Bones," Mickelson said to caddie Jim Mackay, "do you think you could get me yardage from the fairway today?" Mackay laughed along with Mickelson and swing instructor Butch Harmon.
Mickelson won a Masters with two drivers and just three weeks ago captured the Crowne Plaza Colonial using five wedges, one of which he used to extricate himself from an errant 72nd-hole drive. So perhaps it wasn't outlandish to assume he could win a U.S. Open without a driver.
But when Tiger Woods outdrove him at times by 50 yards and outscored him by six strokes during the first two rounds of their featured group, Mickelson's decision to bench his driver became the biggest second-guess of the championship—and maybe Mickelson's career. Saturday, Mickelson awoke at his Rancho Santa Fe home to a headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune that read, "Mickelson's no-driver experiment a flop." On the first tee that day, the biggest ovation went to Tiger. "The second biggest [was] when Phil took the headcover off his driver," said USGA starter Ron Read.
It didn't matter that Mickelson was trying to avoid the wide-left miss that cost him at Winged Foot two years ago. This was the longest course in Open history, and just about every expert except Harmon piled on Mickelson and short-game guru Dave Pelz—who provided data that led to the decision to sacrifice distance for accuracy. "I don't have a problem with the decision but with the execution," Harmon said.
Two weeks before the Open, Mickelson gave hints he wasn't going to attack Torrey South in the conventional way, saying he expected to hit driver only four to six times per round. In the interim, Pelz emphasized to Mickelson that playing from the fairway was going to be the key for the week. Their plan was based on a club Mickelson had made for him at the Callaway facility, a 13-degree FT Fairway 3-wood bent to 11.5 degrees. Able to carry shots hit with that club 280 yards, with 20 yards of roll, Mickelson was hoping to put less stress on his short game by keeping his ball in the fairway.
The plan backfired when Mickelson hit just 12 fairways, made only six birdies and shot rounds of 71-75. Woods closed out that second day by reaching the 612-yard ninth and two-putting for a 68, while Phil lagged behind and made bogey. Still, Pelz defended the plan, pointing out that Rocco Mediate played his way into Monday's playoff by averaging about 283 yards off the tee. "I still think it was the correct decision, but Phil had to make it," Pelz said. "I don't know anybody who can hit a driver straighter than a 3-wood."
The usually gracious Mickelson refused to speak to reporters after his round Friday evening, but by Saturday he appeared over the frustration—even after making a 9 at the par-5 13th on his way to a 76. In his post-round news conference, he drew a ripple of laughter by saying the last time he had made 9 at 13 was when he was 8 years old. "Hitting driver just threw me off," he deadpanned.
For most of the week, Mickelson appeared better at the one-liner than the one-putt, preferring to make light of his inability to close out U.S. Opens rather than wallowing in the darkness of four runner-up finishes and this latest empty week. Before last week's championship was over, he already was looking ahead to next year's venue, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park near New York City—site of "one of my best memories in the game of golf I've ever had," he said. There, at the 2002 Open, he stole the audience but not the title from Woods.