July 6, 2008

Separation Anxiety

After a dispiriting week in Augusta, Phil Mickelson faces a tough decision: leaving longtime friend and swing coach Rick Smith for Butch Harmon

Mickelson's long swing, part of victories in 2004 and '06, produced a mediocre T-24 last week.

Mickelson's long swing, part of victories in 2004 and '06, produced a mediocre T-24 last week.

After Phil Mickelson ended his Masters defense last Sunday with a closing 77 that marked his highest score in 58 official rounds at Augusta, his step stayed light.

He calmly recounted for the media how a shocking first-hole triple-bogey 7 took him out of contention and into an eventual tie for 24th, 10 strokes behind winner Zach Johnson. He happily accepted hugs from his assembled family and friends, and would smile broadly while slipping the green jacket on Johnson during the closing ceremony.

In no way did Mickelson betray the weight of one of the toughest decisions of his career—replacing his longtime swing instructor, Rick Smith, with Butch Harmon. Indeed, although it's become clear to close observers that Harmon will soon take over as Mickelson's main coach, the player himself denied that any change has been made.

"No, nothing has happened, everything's the same," said Mickelson before exiting the grounds. "Rick's still my guy, but I will keep having Butch check me now and then for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. That's where it stands."

It was Mickelson's attempt to have it both ways—delaying a public blow to a friend, while not precluding an impending transition. But the explanation conveniently ignored the fact Harmon and Smith have long had a frosty relationship, emanating mainly from Harmon's belief that Smith broke the instructor code when he helped Tiger Woods with his swing at the 1996 U.S. Open when Harmon was Woods' coach (Smith says he was simply responding to Woods' request to have a look at his action). Smith made it clear how he feels about Harmon's forays with Mickelson when he saw Harmon on the practice putting green at the Masters and said, sarcastically, "Hey, thanks for looking after my buddy for me."

Of course, no amount of aplomb or denial can reconcile the conflict that confronts a professional golfer when forced to choose between a personal relationship and what he believes is best for his game—particularly when that golfer has exhibited the kind of loyalty to his inner circle like Mickelson has to his.

Smith, short-game coach Dave Pelz, manager Steve Loy and caddie Jim Mackay have all worked for, and with, Mickelson for at least a decade. Smith is a partner with Mickelson in several off-course business ventures, and their wives are extremely close friends. But Harmon, who coached Greg Norman and later Woods on their separate ascents to the No. 1-ranking in the world, is eager to work with the left-hander and seems to possess the exact qualities Mickelson most needs, particularly a precise (and, most would say, correct) idea of how to improve his game, and a firm, direct style in delivering the message.

From the perspective of Mickelson the golfer, the choice is clear: In order to win the major championships that will give him the historical prominence he covets in the Age of Tiger, Mickelson must improve his swing. While Pelz has made the left-hander's short game more efficient and trainer Sean Cochran has made him more fit, Mickelson's ball-striking, under the guidance of Smith, has remained suspect. Even while winning three majors in three years beginning with the 2004 Masters, that ball-striking has too often been on the fritz, his extra-long backswing suspect under pressure. Mickelson's obsession with the whiz-bang of technology has produced some advantages—carrying two drivers, for example—but mostly it has masked the real issues of his technique. The former wunderkind is now 36, and clearly it's time to deal with root causes. With Smith, inertia has set in. With Harmon lies the promise of a breakthrough.

The issues have crystallized quickly in the last 12 months. After impressive victories at Atlanta and Augusta, Mickelson appeared on the verge of supplanting Woods as the top player in the game. Instead, he came back from a two-week break after winning the Masters with no feel for his golf swing and didn't have another good ball-striking tournament the rest of the year. Although he prepared intensely for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, ultimately even magical scrambling couldn't make up for persistent erratic driving. His final, severely flared drive on the 72nd hole, and an even more lethal push with a 3-iron on his first recovery shot, produced a double bogey for perhaps the most heartbreaking one-stroke loss in the championship's history.

Phil Mickelson

The reversal of fortune seemed to sap Mickelson of his spirit, and he ended his 2006 season after a desultory performance at the Ryder Cup. But he came back early this season from the long break in better physical shape and resolved to correct his tendency to push drives under pressure.

He appeared to have done so at the ATT Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in early February, where he had one of the best driving tournaments of his career in cruising to his 30th PGA Tour victory. But the next week at Riviera, a bogey on the 72nd hole after a pushed drive into the rough put him in a playoff with Charles Howell III, and his eventual loss raised the ghosts of Winged Foot.

It was the following week, the day before his opening-round match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, that Mickelson was seen on the practice tee working with Harmon. Mickelson explained away the awkward questions by calling Harmon "another set of eyes" and treating the coupling as a rarity. "I'm not going to go there," said Mickelson at the time, when pressed by reporters about whether he was planning a change in coaches. But four weeks later at Doral, he and Harmon had another session. It was as if Mickelson was sending Smith a message to take a hint and step aside.

But Smith didn't budge, and it was he and not Harmon who worked with Mickelson all week at Augusta. Perhaps ominously, the left-hander finished third from the bottom in driving accuracy among players who played four rounds. For his part, Harmon answered intriguingly when asked if he would be working full time with Mickelson. "I'm not going to say anything about it right now," he said.

Smith, however, had plenty to say, and it was telling.

"[There has] probably been a lack of communication," said Smith Saturday, acknowledging that the partnership had stalled. "After awhile, the same message doesn't get through as well. This morning before the round it got a little tense on the practice range because he was hitting the driver poorly and got confused. Finally, he sort of snapped at me, 'Could you just give me one thing?'

"You know, if Phil decides to make the change, we've had a good run," said Smith. "How many player-teacher relationships result in winning three majors in three years? No matter what happens, we'll stay friends and I'll be fine. There are a lot of other things I can do. I turn 50 this year, and I might even go and try to play the Champions Tour."

But Smith held out hope he would continue as Mickelson's coach.

Phil Mickelson

"I'd like us to go back to having a game plan like we had in 2004, when he played a fade from the tee," Smith said. "The cut swing-path is really good for Phil all through the bag because it keeps him from getting the club on an inside-out path, which causes those blocks and pushes. Fading the driver costs him 15 yards in distance, but he's much straighter and more consistent with it. We basically won three majors playing that way, but Phil wants to go back to hitting a draw, which causes his bad habits to reappear. That's what has been happening this year.

"Phil has got his style," said Smith, "and he doesn't want to give that up. Ideally, I would like to shorten his backswing by a foot, but Phil isn't comfortable with that. It makes him feel tight and he wants his swing to be more free-flowing. So it's always been a blend of what I like and he wants—it's always been a compromise."

Phil Mickelson

Most who know Harmon say compromise would not be his approach with Mickelson, who many believe would improve more by deferring to a teacher.

"Butch isn't going to sugarcoat it," said Fred Couples, who has worked with Harmon for several years. "He doesn't jerk around, and he's going to beat you a little bit if he thinks you need it. He had a lot of fun that way even with Tiger."

Added Couples, "I don't know what's going on with Rick and Butch, but I can tell you every time I'm around Butch, Phil's name comes up. He would really like to work with Phil because he believes he can help him. I'm sure he would try to get him to shorten up his backswing, like he did with me. That swing puts less curve on the ball. I'm living proof of that, and that's what Phil probably needs."

If it happens, even Mickelsonian diplomacy won't prevent hard feelings.

"Butch probably wants to get back at Tiger," said Smith in a parting shot, "and maybe he thinks he can do that through Phil."

Perhaps. But more importantly, if Phil wants to beat Tiger, maybe this is the way.