What should Phil do next?

Updated: October 25, 2006, 11:25 AM ET
By John Hawkins | Golf World

Phil Mickelson's decision to skip last year's Tour Championship was perceived by some as an unexcused absence -- how dare the world's third-ranked player choose trick-or-treating with his kids over a tournament where last place pays $105,300! When the tour gathers next week in Atlanta to wrap up the 2006 season, Mickelson again will stay home, having played in his final event two months ago before serving as America's lead goat at the Ryder Cup.

A ton of evidence suggests Lefty never recovered from his 72nd-hole meltdown at the U.S. Open, which pardons him from the dough rake at East Lake and justifies the five-month break he will take before returning at the 2007 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. With a pair of victories before Winged Foot, including the Masters, and seven top-10s in 13 starts, Mickelson was nicely positioned to win Player of the Year honors for the first time. He had won three of the previous nine majors, muting everyone who questioned his moxie in golf's biggest tournaments.

Phil Mickelson
Charles Krupa/AP PhotoMickelson was all smiles early in that U.S. Open final round, but he hasn't been the same since.
Everything changed June 18. Philly Mick's collapse seems to have prompted Tiger Woods' latest barrage of dominance, as if the master opportunist knew it would take months for his most formidable rival to get over the loss. And it has. Mickelson's best finish in five events after the U.S. Open was a T-16. Despite all the on-site preparation at Winged Foot, the twilight loops around the back nine after playing in the Barclays Classic and the pages of notes he rewrote after they had gotten soaked in the pro-am at Westchester, Lefty found himself double-crossed by the most reliable virtue of greatness.

Sometimes, the harder you work, the harder you fall. Deep into their final night at The K Club, Mickelson and Woods were still dueling on the Ping-Pong table while the rest of the U.S. Ryder Cup contingent soaked the loss in Guinness. In 2007, the playing field won't be as level. Tiger has distanced himself from everyone, and if Philly Mick is serious about challenging that supremacy, he needs to make three significant changes in the upcoming year.

Tweaking the routine: Is it possible to overprepare at the majors? Mickelson has found a formula that works for him, but in showing up three hours before his tee times at the biggest events, then hitting hundreds of 3-foot putts and going into a full-grind mode long before he plays a hole, the idea isn't without merit. Nor has it been dismissed by his most trusted allies. One thing you should know about the big fella, however, is that he calls all the shots.

There also are the facts, and one is that Mickelson always has performed much better in the first half of the year, before burnout has taken its toll. "You can go so far that you start to ignore everything else in your golf universe," one knowledgeable observer says. "I'm wondering if that isn't the case."

Better physical conditioning: How much buzz would he generate if Hefty Lefty showed up at the '07 Hope 25 pounds lighter than he has been in recent years? Mickelson has taken a lot of heat for his expanding waistline, and though the extra weight hasn't prevented him from winning tournaments, it's obvious he needs to get in better shape if he plans to catch ultra-buff Woods.

Again, the issue involves the long haul. Mickelson's decline in hot weather is easy to blame on his oversize physique. He has one victory in 37 career starts in Florida. Both his Masters triumphs came in relatively cool weeks, and the thunderstorms that pushed the 2005 PGA into Monday might have helped him hold on. He would be making a serious statement if he shed some bulk, but as one tour regular puts it, "I keep waiting for him to show up one year in decent shape, and I'm hoping it will happen, but I know it won't."

Tighter golf swing: That Mickelson led with one hole to play at Winged Foot was equal parts grit, preparation and illusion. He only hit two fairways in that final round, and his iron play was loose all week. Lefty's caddie, Jim Mackay, will tell you his man would have finished well back if not for the 64-degree wedge that stole numerous pars the first two days. Mickelson struck the ball wonderfully on the back nine Saturday. Otherwise, he struggled with his mechanics as much as anyone.

Perhaps it was mental fatigue or poor conditioning, but in 2006, Philly Mick wasn't as sharp from tee to green after back-to-back wins in Atlanta and Augusta. He got himself into enough lousy positions that he ranked 142nd in scrambling despite the Houdini act at Winged Foot. When he did get scoring chances, Mickelson putted brilliantly, leading the tour in birdie-conversion percentage. As was the case after his miserable 2003, he should spend considerable offseason time with swing coach Rick Smith and sharpen the technique that had him on the verge of becoming the game's best player.

One thing's for sure. The dude down in Isleworth won't be slacking off much.

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.