It’s always surprising and informative when a tour player opens up about his game, especially when things aren’t going well. Phil Mickelson may have broken new ground, though, when he spoke candidly about his broken game after both the first and second rounds of this week’s CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur. He’s three-under-par, which isn’t exactly atrocious as far as a score goes, but he is mystified by what has happened to his swing.
The five-time major champion said he has a two-way miss going—every golfer’s fear. Speaking of a two-way miss, where a player doesn’t know whether he’ll hit a shot right or left or with which kind of flight, is almost akin to admitting to the shanks. Mickelson said he’s been fighting his swing since he returned to competition after playing a tremendous last nine holes to win the Open Championship at the Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland last July.
I’ve often thought that tour players, even the best of them, are the most vulnerable and fragile of golfers. They play the game for their livelihoods, and missing the sweet spot by a fraction, or having their swing planes fly off in unwanted directions, can make them reel with anxiety. Golfers who can’t hit a 50-yard fairway and who play for fun go on their merry ways. The game for them is recreation. It doesn’t wreck their confidence in nearly the same ways.
One danger for tour players can be that they take their errant games home with them. They might think about what’s going wrong so much they can hardly think of anything else. Tour players have access to the most sophisticated instruction in the world, and the best teachers. Mickelson works with Butch Harmon, whose teaching has been at the top of the charts for years.
Golf Digest just ranked Harmon the number one swing coach in the U.S. Actually, 1,200 of his fellow instructors were polled for the ranking of the top 50 instructors. Sean Foley was ranked second. Both Harmon and Foley—and every instructor—understand that no matter how good they are, that doesn’t mean they and their players can work things out when things fall apart. It’s a process, as Tiger Woods, has said so often. As I write, I still find it amazing that there was every any debate about whether his fellow players would vote him PGA Tour Player of the Year again.
Woods did win five times, even if he didn’t win a major. I was talking with Foley this week, the day after he was in New York to tape the Charlie Rose show. The show will air soon. Rose asked Foley what was wrong with Woods, meaning, I suppose, why he hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. Foley simply answered that Woods in one year had Luke Donald’s career.
Foley meant no disrespect to Donald. His point was that Donald, a world number one not long ago, has won five PGA Tour events his whole career. He’s also won seven times on the European Tour. Donald, as it happens, asked Foley recently if they could work together. Foley would have liked to—what teacher wouldn’t—but he told Donald he didn’t have the time. He’s that busy, for sure.
Meanwhile, what about that lost golfer Mickelson? His words and his body language indicated a golfer at sixes and sevens with himself. (I’ve always liked that phrase, but don’t know if I’ve ever gotten it into a column. Now I have).
Asked after the first round about his game, here’s what Mickelson said.
“I can't remember swinging this bad in a long time, and as I shoot video of my swing I'm doing everything wrong. The path of the club is too inside, then it's vertical, the head's moving, my legs are loose. Divots are steep. It's terrible. This is the worst I've hit and I can't find the middle of the clubface. And I'm not sure if the ball is going to go dead left or snap hook right and it's a frustrating time tee to green. But I'm putting okay.”
Asked after the second round about his game, here’s what Mickelson said.
“Yeah, it's not much better. I don't have the control of swing that I would like. I'm not sure what side I'm going to miss it on. And playing this golf course from the rough, which I did today, was extremely difficult. The rough is tough. You're fighting for pars the whole day. It was closer today. The rhythm was a little bit better, but technically I've got a lot of issues. I think that I'll address it more in the off‑season. This week and next week, (when he plays the HSBC Champions in Shanghai), it's going to be difficult.”
Thinking about Mickelson’s woes, I can’t help but run through my mind what the late Miller Barber once told George Knudson. The late, great Canadian golfer Knudson ran into Barber after a few years of not seeing him. Knudson asked Barber how he was doing.
“I still can’t make a putt,” Barber answered.
Knudson told his friend and colleague that he was asking him about his life in general, especially his family. But Barber had his poor putting at the front of his mind.
What would Mickelson answer if a fellow player ran into him just now?
Based on what he’s said after each of his first two rounds in Kuala Lumpur, I think we know the answer.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein