BonkMarch 4, 2009

No Laughing Matter

With the Masters approaching, Butch Harmon says star pupil Phil Mickelson is serious about ramping up his game

Under Butch Harmon's direction, Phil Mickelson has been working on eliminating the right side of the fairway off the tee.

Under Butch Harmon's direction, Phil Mickelson has been working on eliminating the right side of the fairway off the tee.

Since swing coach Butch Harmon took Phil Mickelson under his wing, there have been some changes made. Mickelson improved, won five times starting with his come-from-behind victory at the 2007 Players, Harmon's first full week on the job. But Mickelson still recognized he needed more help and Harmon has constantly been working on Mickelson's swing to make his misses smaller.

But close Phil-watchers realize there are additional alterations being made in a player who continues to be a work in progress. For instance, under Harmon's tutelage, Mickelson tries red wine, but only about once a month. Butch said Mickelson's palate is trending toward Bordeaux, especially Chateau Margaux. Actually, this is quite a nice neighborhood to visit, if a bottle from the 1982 vintage sounds right, at its going rate of about $1,195. Think about it. If somebody named Butch is whispering in your ear that a bottle of wine might really be worth four figures, you have to believe he's on to something.

And now, with the Masters just around the corner, Harmon said that Mickelson is going to be someone to be reckoned with again. He could be on to something there, too. There's a chance it's going to be vintage Phil.

The Harmon-Mickelson collaboration has covered a lot of territory, but a great deal of attention is being paid to the direction Mickelson hits the ball off the tee. The Harmon plan is to take the right side of the fairway out of the equation -- in lefty Mickelson's case to guard against a hook.

Already the results are positive, if you count Mickelson's gritty victory at Riviera, where he lost his fourth-round lead and then birdied two of the last three holes to slip past Steve Stricker.

"It felt great to be able to pull through…and still find a way to win," Mickelson said a week later at the Accenture Match Play Championshup. "I think that it's also kind of a platform for me to hopefully get better…for Augusta. I feel like I'm getting better each day."

The key is thinking you can predict where the ball is going.

"Phil can stand there and know it's not gonna go right," Harmon said. "By Augusta, he should be right on track." That would be good timing. Two of Mickelson's three major championships are the Masters, in 2004 and in 2006, which is also the last time he won a major. The way he started out the year, it didn't look as if he was getting closer to another. In fact, when Mickelson began this year in a funk, missing the cut at Phoenix and playing average at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach, it seemed to provide an opportunity to dump on Phil. It was all skeptics on deck.

There still are going to be plenty of opportunities to gauge Mickelson's progress, but Harmon said his pupil is headed in the right direction and it would be wrong to leave him out of any major discussion. According to the teacher Mickelson isn't leaning on his natural ability, but rolling up his sleeves.

"He's trying to get better. His golf swing is not anywhere like he used to be. And last year, even if he struggled with the putter, he came within a whisker of winning the Vardon Trophy," Harmon said.

Mickelson's 69.42 scoring average was second to Sergio Garcia's 69.12, which by the way was the highest winning scoring average in 10 years.

But back to the tee. That's where you find the key to keeping Mickelson going.

"The longest hitters, look at their driving stats, they miss a lot of fairways, but they hit it so far," Harmon said. " The big difference in Phil is he's not missing fairways by as much as he's used to. If you're in the first cut, or a little off-line, you're fine. He's feeling confidence with his driver."

Not that the statistics suggest as much. So far in 2009 Mickelson is hitting about half the fairways, and that's down from last year. He ranks 32nd in driving, averaging 291.7 yards, which is four yards less than last year.

Harmon wouldn't be too specific about all he's doing with Mickelson's swing, but he did say that Mickelson has "a lot of aggressive legwork." That was the focus of a session before the third round at Riviera, where Mickelson went out and shot 62. Harmon's objective was to quiet Mickelson's lower body "so it's not all over the place."

While Harmon is encouraged by Mickelson's progress, he's not so happy with Mickelson's critics, especially after Riviera. It's all about comparisons, Harmon said.

"When Tiger wins and doesn't play as well, or wins with his 'B Game' or 'C Game,' everybody talks about how courageous he is," Harmon said. "Phil wins the same kind of way and everybody says how lucky he is. Different strokes for different folks, I guess."

There are only weeks left before the Masters now, and not a whole lot of opportunities for someone to separate himself from the rest, although you'd have to say that Woods and Mickelson will be among those receivng the most attention once they show up at the Masters.

Harmon said Mickelson's ceiling is as high as anybody's, with Augusta getting closer all the time. Maybe it's approaching at the same rate as Mickelson is improving. That's the game plan for the Masters, anyway.

"We're just about there," Harmon said.

He wasn't talking about a calendar.