Will new era mean a new Phil?
Rebooting has never been a problem for Phil Mickelson. The man might have a short shelf life every season, but he's made the most of his reps, winning a major every year since 2004, a streak not even Tiger Woods can brag of achieving. When it comes to improving, to making strides every year to become a better player, and then producing the goods, Mickelson has shown levels of commitment that are easily forgotten when he flames out, checks out early or steps on a scale.
To think Lefty was one swing away from three consecutive majors really puts in perspective just how devastating the 72nd hole of the Winged Foot Open must have felt this offseason. But typical of Mickelson, he didn't feel sorry for himself for long. He went to Bora Bora to renew vows with Amy. He vacationed in Rome and Venice. He designed courses in North Carolina and Mexico. He skied in the Rockies. And he reacquainted himself with Sean Cochran.
Cochran is Mickelson's strength and conditioning coach, a title he probably wanted to low-key as Phil's body size reached new proportions at the end of 2006. The over/under was 250 pounds, and as Mickelson admitted on Tuesday at the Hope, that was simply too much subcutaneous fat for a world-class athlete to be lugging around the K Club, so he got busy with Cochran in the cardio room, switched up his martial arts program and continued with his core-strength work.
"I immediately lost 20, 25 pounds and put on about 10 to 15 more with muscle from lifting," he said Tuesday, adding, "I'm hoping that this will improve stamina so that at the latter part of the year I have a better performance."
This was good news in the office of Tim Finchem; the commissioner is looking for a sign from his superstars that they're legitimately fired up about the FedEx Cup, not just providing lip service. Jack Nicklaus is also interested, since he'll be captain of the Presidents Cup team. Tiger might also be interested, because it would be nice if he had some competition this season.
So it's all good in the Mickelson camp heading into 2007. A clean slate, a fresh start, a new body, a cleared mind -- other than his San Diego Chargers losing to New England, there's nothing to be bummed out about.
"The biggest area is, I'm excited to play golf again," he said, explaining how the offseason was spent cleaning up the non-golf-related responsibilities in his life. "I just can't wait to get started. I'm really excited about this year."
Reading between the lines, the FedEx Cup has become a way to keep Mickelson motivated beyond the PGA Championship. Tiger can win his two majors, another money title, another Player of the Year title -- but like the Chargers (or the Colts last year), he could get knocked out of the playoffs, or at least not win the Super Bowl.
"What's cool is that we actually have something to play for now at the end of the year, as opposed to having the money list already decided, the Player of the Year already decided and [the Tour Championship] just being a tournament for the top 30 on tour," he said. "This is going to be a four-tournament stretch that will decide a lot."
What it will decide is who takes home a $10 million retirement package, but if that's enough to motivate Phil, the game is better for it. So are the United States' Cup teams; other than the 2005 Presidents Cup, Mickelson has been more of an anchor that the team's No. 2 player. Going 0-4-1 last September in Ireland sounds like it hurt his professional pride even more than blowing the Open.
There will be other failures for Mickelson. That's the nature of his character. But there will be multiple victories, too, some big years and some not-so-big years. Historically, though, his best (2004-05) has come after his worst (2003).
Looking back on 2006, Mickelson really had a two-week season. He won the BellSouth by 13 shots and followed that up with a convincing win at the Masters. Other than those weeks, he struggled with his driver. It was short game and heart that he led the Open after 71 holes. As he said, "You know, I really believe that the former presidents of the USGA that passed away were looking down and said, 'No one should win the Open hitting two of 14 fairways.' That certainly came back to bite me and I have to address that need."
Rick Smith flew into San Diego. Callaway changed the weight on a driver that will eliminate the banana, and the Hope is an easy place to break it in when compared with doing so at Kapalua. "Sometimes when the weather is blowing 20, 30 miles an hour, you can't tell what exactly you're doing right in your swing or what you're doing wrong and you get in some bad habits," he said, indirectly explaining why he skips the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship. "To start here in great weather is a perfect place to start."
Mickelson's also starting to prepare for regular events the way he has majors, sneaking off to Torrey Pines with Dave Pelz to prep for next week's Buick Invitational -- and the 2008 U.S. Open. As for any scar tissue remaining in his psyche after Winged Foot, Phil reminded us that he's always been good at having short-term memory loss.
You have to in golf, which has a 90 percent failure rate. "A scar happened in '94 when I broke my leg and they cut it open and stuck in a rod," he said. "That's a scar. Losing the Open obviously hurt, but losing the PGA in 2001 hurt, losing the Masters a number of years hurt and losing the U.S. Open in 2004 making double at 17 hurt."
The hurt is now replaced by optimism. It's a new era, a new season, and for now, a new (and improved) Phil.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine
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