Three Down, One To Go For Mickelson
Ben Crenshaw was among the millions captivated by the drama, entertainment and sheer wonder of what was unfolding on his television set early the afternoon on July 21, 2013. Six time zones away on the east coast of Scotland, Phil Mickelson marched the ancient, crusty links at Muirfield Golf Club in five-under 66 to storm from five shots behind and win the British Open going away.
Crenshaw has made golf history himself—winning two Masters and 19 PGA Tour events—and been involved from the periphery in another major story as well, captaining the United States team to victory in the 1999 Ryder Cup Match at Brookline. But watching from his home in Austin, Texas, Crenshaw was sucked into the vortex of the afternoon’s significance.
“Gosh, what a great performance,” Crenshaw says. “It was unbelievable. It was fascinating to watch. Phil made the right decisions and he played very aggressively. That second shot on 17 was one for the ages. He had confidence in that club, essentially it was a brassie, and struck it really well. It hit on the downslope and, man alive, what a great bounce, right to the middle of the green. Then he hit two beautiful shots on 18. He did so many good things. It was a special week for Phil, no question.”
Another interested observer was Dave Pelz, the short-game teaching coach who has worked with Mickelson for 10 years.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Pelz says. “That was the nicest thing for the game I can imagine, to have Phil play so well and win that championship. He was heartbroken a month before at Merion. To bounce back like he did and play so well on a very difficult course was special. I have never seen a golf course with faster fairways than greens, but that was the deal at Muirfield.”
Now the clock is ticking on Pinehurst’s return to the U.S. Open rota in June of 2014. That Mickelson has yet to win a U.S. Open, and that winning it at Pinehurst would round off his career Grand Slam, is a fact not lost on anyone in world of golf.
“Phil knows the golf course pretty well,” Pelz says. “I think it suits his game well. Getting rest and hitting the ball well going into the tournament will be important, but even more so next year, the emotional element is going to mean more than ever before. It’s going to be important to step back from all the hype and build-up and his own emotions. It’s going to be exciting.”
Crenshaw played in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst and visited the No. 2 course often from 2010-12 as he and design partner Bill Coore restored the course to its early 20th century fairway dimensions, replaced acres of Bermuda rough with a native presentation of hardpan sand and wire grass, and retooled the bunkers into a more rugged, natural appearance. Now that Merion and the 2013 Open have passed and Pinehurst is next up, Crenshaw admits to a heightened level of curiosity and excitement over how the new No. 2 will be seen on worldwide television and received by the competitors.
“Phil’s been around No. 2 a number of times,” Crenshaw says. “He’ll have to feel his way along like everyone else. It’s a little different presentation. These guys are going to change their thinking of what to hit off the tee in a lot of situations. They won’t hit driver off of every tee. It will be fascinating to see how they play it, how they adjust. A lot will depend on the weather leading up to the Open—how much rain do they get, how firm can they get the fairways? If the fairways are bouncing, they’ll have to be very careful on a lot of holes.”
Mickelson’s vaunted short game will be put to the test around the turtle-back greens and their surrounds of dips, swales and ridges. In previous Opens in 1999 and 2005, he hit recovery shots with everything from a fairway wood struck with a putting grip and stroke to a 64-degree wedge that would bounce, hop and stop.
“Phil’s imagination around the greens is special,” Crenshaw says. “He’s got great touch. Gosh, some of the shots around the greens in ’99 were unbelievable. He’ll have to be in the top tier of favorites for that reason alone. He can sure play that 64-degree shot. But in some instances, it’s maybe not the shot. He’ll have four or five wedges to choose from. What will he put in his bag that week? His really high-lofted wedges have no bounce on them, so he can be aggressive off tight lies and hit a lot of creative shots around those greens.”
“(Pinehurst) is the best test of golf I’ve played in a major championship. Other U.S. Open courses have taken the driver out of your hand, forced you to hit 2- and 3- and 4-irons off the tee. Others make the short game obsolete. Here with all the options around the greens, the short game is an integral part of the championship.” – Phil Mickelson
Pelz had yet to begin working with Mickelson in 1999 (their coaching relationship began in 2003), but one client Pelz did have at the time was Payne Stewart, the eventual champion and the tragic victim four months later of a plane crash. Pelz remembers the green surrounds being cropped so close for the ’99 Open that golfers besieged him the weeks leading up to the championship for chipping instruction.
“Two weeks before the Open was the busiest I’ve ever been with requests from PGA Tour players,” he says. “They were calling one after another. They needed help chipping. Many of them visited Pinehurst, played practice rounds and were chunking their chip shots. Those lies were so tight that you hit it fat by a tenth of an inch and it would just chunk, it wouldn’t go anywhere. Fortunately, Payne was such a good chipper, he didn’t have any issues that week at all.”
Mickelson finished second to Stewart in 1999, the first of what would mount to six second-place finishes in U.S. Opens. By the time of the Open’s return to Pinehurst in 2005, Mickelson had collected his first major championship, the 2004 Masters, and felt primed to finish what he had nearly accomplished in 1999.
“This is the best test of golf I’ve played in a major championship,” Mickelson said of the No. 2 experience. “Other U.S. Open courses have taken the driver out of your hand, forced you to hit 2- and 3- and 4-irons off the tee. Others make the short game obsolete. Here with all the options around the greens, the short game is an integral part of the championship.”
Mickelson opened with a 69 in 2005 but shot himself out of the competition with a 77 on Friday. Playing the back nine first, he shot a six-over 41 and wondered afterward if was the worst nine holes he’d played in 13 years on the pro tour.
“I remember the second round vividly,” Pelz says. “I walked every step of it with Phil. There were about six holes where he hit the ball less than two feet into the rough and was absolutely dead. It was the same as a one-shot penalty. You might as well pick it up and drop it over your shoulder. You had to wedge it out 20 yards and go on. Phil was driving the ball really well. If he hits it in the fairway, it bounces in the fairway and then bounces in the rough by a foot, he feels like that’s a pretty good drive. Hitting the edge of the fairway is not bad from 300 yards. But in that U.S. Open, he was dead. I thought it was very unfair the way it was set up.
“Since then, the USGA has gone to graduated rough. At Merion there was a first cut, a second cut and a third cut. The more you miss the fairway, the steeper the penalty. That’s fair.”
Mickelson noted after that round that he was better off missing the fairways by a bunch than a little. A drive 20 yards off-line found trampled-down rough or perhaps a clear recovery from the trees. That’s a moot point leading to the 2014 Open, as the restored No. 2 is now shorn of every blade of long Bermuda rough.
“I love how it will play at Pinehurst—let the ball run through the sand and into the trees if you hit a bad one,” Pelz says.
Pelz says he’s anxious to visit Pinehurst, inspect the No. 2 course and begin mapping out a game plan with Mickelson for his spring preparation and championship-week execution.
“We will start work on it when he’s done with the FedEx Cup,” Pelz says. “I want to go see the course, get my arms around what it’s going to look like and play like. I’ve not seen it, I’ve heard about it. But I want to see it myself.
“I think the restoration will be good for Phil’s game, opening the course up off the fairway. He’s driven the ball fairly well lately; this 3-wood he’s hitting is a pretty nice club. I think he’ll do well there. I just think managing his expectations and his own game and his own excitement will be a huge thing next year. He only needs this one to finish the career grand slam. It would be a wonderful thing for him. He’s a great player and he deserves it.”