If this were a matter of his tee shots going way left or way right, or both, it would be much easier. If Phil Mickelson were only pulling his putts, the fix would be a comparative cinch.
It is one thing to correct a disobedient golf ball and something totally different, and harder, to rein in wayward thoughts.
That was his problem in a brief and unfulfilling 100th career major championship. “I’m not real focused out there,” he said Friday after shooting 7-over-par 78, finishing at 11 over and missing the cut in a PGA Championship for the first time since 1995.
“I’m having a tough time controlling my thoughts and not letting them wander to what I don’t want to have happen,” he said after beginning a media scrum with a slyly sarcastic “Awesome!” to describe his trip to Quail Hollow Club. “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.”
So here is the natural follow-up: How in the heck do you work on that?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ll have to figure that out.”
Maybe there really is no figuring. It just might be that the golf synapses do not fire as sharply when a pro is 47, even a Hall of Fame pro who is among the best in the sport’s history.
There is a reason why only one man Mickelson’s age or older has ever won a major: Julius Boros, 48, at the 1968 PGA Championship. The longer you play, the tougher it gets.
An outsider’s immediate rationale is that Mickelson misses the encouraging, focusing presence of former caddie Jim “Bones’’ Mackay, with whom he split in June. He wasn’t buying that Friday. “I don’t know how that would really affect the shots I’ve been hitting. I don’t know how that would play in,” he said.
They never did explain why they ended one of the closest, most productive partnerships in golf. You wonder if, instead of Mickelson playing poorly because Bones isn’t here, maybe Bones left or was instructed to go because Mickelson didn’t feel as if he could be the major contender he has been for so long.
In any case, the week got off to a wonderful start for Mickelson with a warm and entertaining joint news conference with Ernie Els to celebrate the fact that each was playing his 100th major. Mickelson saluted his fellow 47-year-old, saying that his true legacy will be his “Els for Autism” foundation. Els smiled when he said of the other man, “He’s a pretty good guy and, you know, a hell of a golfer.”
But the valedictory ended when the golf started. Quail Hollow, with its dense Bermuda grass rough and slick greens, has been too difficult for someone who is not focused or, probably more important, not in his prime. Mickelson has moved into an older demographic. He will be there later this month when his daughter — the one whose high school graduation caused him to miss the U.S. Open — settles in at college.
As for his golf, he will take a week off, then come to Long Island the week after next to start the FedEx Cup playoffs with the Northern Trust at Glen Oaks Club. He hopes to earn a place on the U.S. team for the Presidents Cup, to be held at Liberty National in Jersey City Sept. 28.
Team captain Steve Stricker said he has told his old friend that he would like to see him play well and justify a captain’s pick. “That doesn’t sound right, coming from a guy like me, talking to Phil: ‘Hey, show me something.’ But that’s basically what I said. Because I would love to have him on the team,” Stricker said.
In other words, a bad PGA following a bad British Open does not necessarily mean Mickelson is finished. That would be unfair for any of us to say. Stricker thinks there still is some golf left in Phil, which is a pleasant way to think about a mostly pleasant guy who doesn’t know what to think.