CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the many enduring qualities Phil Mickelson has possessed in a quarter century of professional golf is an ability to extricate himself from some of the precarious positions the game offers.
And when he goes through a lull, as all golfers are wont to do, he has an uncanny capacity to snap out of it, finding form in an instant and rattling off a bunch of birdies.
This does not appear to be one of those times.
After missing the cut by a mile at the PGA Championship on Friday, Mickelson understandably looked tired and beaten. He spent most of the past two days flailing away in the rough at Quail Hollow, and shooting 79 on Thursday and 74 on Friday was certainly no fun. For the first time in 22 years, he missed the cut at the PGA.
To put that in perspective, the last time Mickelson missed a cut at the PGA, Steve Elkington beat Colin Montgomerie in 1995 at Riviera when Lefty was 25 and had four PGA Tour titles on his résumé. Tiger Woods was more than a year away from turning pro.
“The difference is I’m not searching,” Mickelson said of past swing troubles. “It’s not like I’m hitting the ball crooked; I’m just hitting it in the wrong spots. Not really controlling my thought process, where I want the ball to go. I’m not real focused out there. I’m having a tough time visualizing the shot. I’m having a tough time controlling my thoughts and not letting it (wander) to what I don’t want to have happen.
“On the range, I’m having some of the best sessions, swinging the club fine, striking it pretty good, and yet I’m not controlling my thought process out there.”
Mickelson turned 47 in June, and for the past seven years he has managed to put any questions about age to rest. He’s competed at a high level, winning The Open in 2013 and engaging Henrik Stenson (who ultimately won) in an exciting duel at The Open last year at Royal Troon.
Mickelson had a chance to win the PGA in 2014 and Pebble Beach in 2016, and he hadn’t missed a cut all year until The Open last month.
But when Mickelson starts talking about a lack of focus at a major championship — the very tournaments where it should be at its highest — it makes you wonder. He hit just six fairways on Thursday and needed 31 putts in each of the rounds. His proximity to the hole for approach shots was beyond 50 feet.
Is age becoming a factor? Despite advances in technology and fitness, 40-somethings are not prolific winners. Just six players 40 and older have won during the past two seasons, and Stenson is the only one to capture a major.
Is desire waning? It would certainly make sense. Mickelson is in the Hall of Fame. He has five majors and 42 PGA Tour titles. He’s won more than $83 million in official prize money on the PGA Tour alone. What’s left to prove? He’s not apt to grind out a top-20 finish in some random tournament.
Is the split with longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay having an impact? Since they parted ways, Mickelson has played four times and missed two cuts with his brother, Tim, as caddie. Predictably, Mickelson wasn’t going to suggest that had anything to do with it. “I don’t really know how that would affect the shots I’ve been hitting,” Mickelson said.
Prior to last season, Mickelson also parted ways with swing instructor Butch Harmon and began working with Andrew Getson. The golfer saw numerous positive strides; the “searching” aspect he alluded to was no longer an issue. Mickelson qualified for the U.S. Ryder Cup team on points, went 2-1-1 at Hazeltine, and made nine birdies in a halved singles match with Sergio Garcia.
Mickelson has played in every Presidents Cup, which began in 1994. He has played on every U.S. Ryder Cup team from 1995 forward. That’s 22 straight years of team competition, and this year he’s 17th in Presidents Cup points, with two more starts to make an impression.
Can he be a pick coming off two poor performances in major championships?
“We had a talk about it in Akron (at the WGC-Bridgestone last week),” said Steve Stricker, the U.S. Presidents Cup captain. “He told me he wants to be on this team more than anything. I would love to see him on the team.
“But just like anybody else, I have got to see who is playing well at the time. I know he’s struggling a bit right now, but I told him I’d like to see him play well from here on out to show me something.”
Then Stricker paused.
“That doesn’t sound right coming from a guy like me talking to Phil,” Stricker said. “Hey, show me something. That’s basically what I said. That doesn’t sound right. I know how important he is on the team. How good he is with the young guys and in the locker room and that kind of stuff.”
If Mickelson shows any form whatsoever, you can bet he’ll get picked, given his impact behind the scenes in the U.S. Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup effort.
Perhaps that will be his motivation, because Mickelson appeared not to have much at Quail Hollow, where he had never missed the cut in 14 appearances at the PGA Tour stop and had eight top-10s.
Interesting, because on the eve of what was his 100th major start, Mickelson was asked about his longevity.
“I really enjoy the challenge of trying to win again, and going through a lull and not having my best stuff and then trying to get it back,” Mickelson said. “I’ve actually had a lot of fun this last year and a half, two years, working with Andrew Getson, trying to get back on top. It’s been a fun challenge.
“I think if you enjoy the challenge and enjoy the process, you enjoy putting in the work and you enjoy putting in the time, I think you end up doing it.”
Those are some words Mickelson might need to revisit.