PINEHURST Phil Mickelson isn’t afraid to tinker with his golf game, especially if it can help him win that ever-elusive U.S. Open.
Mickelson is changing his putting grip as he goes for his first Open victory this week at Pinehurst No. 2. It’s a pursuit that has taken on new urgency: an Open championship is all Mickelson needs to complete golf’s “career slam,” with victories in all four major tournaments.
“The greens here are quick,” Mickelson said Tuesday of No. 2. “I’m going back to the ‘claw’ grip in an effort to have a little bit lighter grip pressure and create a softer roll so I can get some of the hit out of it.”
Mickelson has struggled for much of the season, especially with his putter. He is ranked 99th on the PGA Tour in total putting and tied for 77th in putts per round (28.93). His inconsistency on the greens has had as much to do with his problems as anything (he has yet to have a top-10 finish this season). And coming to Pinehurst with its fast, humped greens and without a fix in mind didn’t make sense.
“You can’t win any golf tournament the way I’ve been putting,” Mickelson said after playing a practice round on No. 2’s recently renovated, 7,562-yard layout. “I should have won last week’s tournament (at Memphis, Tenn.) by eight shots if I’d putted decently.”
It’s a challenge he relishes. He also understands the historical significance what it would mean to join Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan as a winner of the “career slam.”
Those players, he said, have “separated themselves from other players throughout all time. It shows that they have a complete game. If I’m able to do that, I would look upon my career differently.”
The U.S. Open has been the one major tournament Mickelson hasn’t been able to solve. He’s won five majors – three Masters, one British Open (in 2013) and one PGA Championship – and has finished runner-up at the U.S. Open a record six times.
Mickelson hinted that he won’t allow published reports that he is under investigation by the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged insider trading interfere with his play.
Almost two weeks ago, Mickelson was approached following a tournament round in Dublin, Ohio, by FBI agents who wanted to talk with him about a insider trading investigation that included investment tycoon Carl Icahn and sports gambler Billy Walters.
Mickelson has said he has done nothing wrong and that he is cooperating with authorities. His agent has said that Mickelson is not the target of an investigation.
“You’ve got to control your thoughts,” Mickelson said. “Whether it’s outside activities or what’s (happening) on the golf course, you’ve got to be able to control your thoughts and be able to visualize what you want to have happen on just the shot at hand.”
Tuesday morning, Mickelson talked with putting coach Dave Stockton about his putting problems and they decided on a switch to the “claw” grip, in which the bottom hand comes off the putter. That will allow Mickelson to putt with a gentler motion than he otherwise would.
“I have been a little bit too ‘poppy,’ if you will,” said Mickelson, who actually went to the grip in the final round at Memphis, where he finished tied for 11th, his best performance of the year. “Not making a long kind of smooth brush stroke. When I take the bottom hand off, it allows me to do that. Ultimately I’ll go back to a regular grip, but for now and probably the coming weeks, it helps me get the feel and flow back.”
Mickelson isn’t averse to this kind of thing, no matter how big the stage. He changed all his irons after the first round of the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where he finished tied for seventh.
“That was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, which actually never came back to bite me,” said Mickelson. “But you know, you’ve got to take some risks and be accountable sometimes. I’ve won majors with two drivers, with one driver, with no driver.”
That’s why Mickelson is willing to make this change. Winning the Open is that important to him.
“What’s going to give me the best chance to putt these greens well?” he said. “This is what we came up with: it’s important to make those 6- to 8-footers. I’m putting them better because I’m softly rolling them in. If that’s what it takes, I’m willing to take any risk. If it comes out great, perfect. If it doesn’t, it was my own decision. I’m fine with dealing with my own bad decisions.”