Why Phil switched to Butch
A year after winning the Masters with two drivers in his bag, Phil Mickelson tried to defend the title with two swing coaches in his ear. Not so much a blueprint for disaster or a cry for help, Mickelson's multimonth waffle between longtime counsel Rick Smith and instructor extraordinaire Butch Harmon was indecision steeped in loyalty -- a professional relationship with a close personal friend producing pedestrian results -- until Leftys alpha-male instincts took over.
It didn't take a T-24 at Augusta to tell Philly Mick that Butch + Rick = Brick. As of this week, Harmon and Mickelson are officially "working together," although Smith has been swimming on borrowed time since February, when Mickelson and Harmon met on a busy practice range the day before the start of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. So conspicuous was this rendezvous that one sensed Lefty actually wanted people to notice, his terse denials the next day notwithstanding. Of course, people did. Who does the guy think he is, Paul Goydos?
Still, no media operation other than Golf World gave the story significant play when it first happened, which only earned me a role in a spirited conversation with Lefty shortly after we posted the original story on our Web site. Clearly, Mickelson was concerned primarily with how Smith would feel once news of his working with Harmon made the front burner. Later that afternoon, no less an interested party than Tiger Woods called me over and wanted to hear the scoop. Let's just say that doesn't happen two or three times a week.
"I'd rather help [longtime pupil] Adam Scott get there," Butch said that week. Mickelson wasn't going to get there with Smith, whose coaching talents have been questioned by several tour pros, a list that includes some former clients. Lefty despises any criticism of his buddy, a nice guy who might be a little too self-made in terms of promotional skills, although it's worth noting that Harmon is razzed constantly by his lesser-known brothers (Bill and Craig) for serving as the president of his own fan club.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. "If there was a World Ranking for golf instructors, Butch would have a double-digit lead over everyone else," says one knowledgeable insider. "The biggest thing with Butch is, he can tell you why [the ball does what it does]. Not a lot of guys can actually do that."
In all likelihood, it was this keen eye that allowed Harmon and Mickelson to form such swift chemistry. If the 72nd-hole meltdown at last year's U.S. Open was emotionally devastating, it was his poor performance three months later at the Ryder Cup that left Lefty seeing the need for change. Philly Mick was embarrassed by his inability to help the U.S. team, let alone to serve as Woods' co-pilot, and in the 3 1/2-month offseason that immediately followed, Mickelson thought long and hard about several aspects of his career direction.
He decided to continue working with Smith, perhaps giving the coach until the second week of April -- a full year from Lefty's last major title -- to reaffirm his value. Five starts into 2007, Mickelson had followed up three lackluster events with a victory at Pebble Beach and a playoff loss in Los Angeles when he ran into Harmon at the WGC-Accenture. Be it via impulse or premeditation, he asked Butch whether he could take a look the next morning.
Hardheaded as he can be, Mickelson is also an extremely analytical, cerebral person -- a far deeper thinker than most tour pros. In 20 minutes that Tuesday, Harmon gave him more swing theory than Smith ever had, at which point the wheels of transition surely were turning. Smith then did himself no favors by saying Mickelson has abandoned the fade that made him so good in 2004. Having watched Lefty on-site at several tournaments this year, I can tell you Smith isn't accurate there.
It adds up to a sexy story line as we head into the second phase of the season. Go figure -- a man derided by some peers and various naysayers for "having all the answers" is now asking the questions, although he's hardly alone. What will Phil do next? It doesn't really matter until we fully comprehend what he just did.
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.