Somewhat overlooked given all the off-course news Phil Mickelson generated in 2022 was his underwhelming form. Between the ropes, Mickelson had a lousy year, notching just one top-10 finish in seven individual stroke-play events on the LIV Golf tour and missing the cut by a wide margin in the two majors he entered (U.S. Open and Open Championship).
“I’m embarrassed with how I played,” Mickelson said Tuesday from the PIF Saudi International, his first appearance of the new year.
Mickelson has always been supremely confident about his immense talents, even when he hasn’t had his best stuff, so his use of the e-word was not only striking but also a good indicator of just how deeply disappointed he was in his game.
Yes, he’s 52 and, sure, every golfer eventually fades but, remember, this a guy who won a major just 21 months ago. Mickelson isn’t quite ready to resign himself to a life of pickleball and Antiques Roadshow reruns.
And so, as Mickelson has made a career of doing, he used the off-season to pop his proverbial hood and tune-up the engine.
“It’s night and day,” he said of the state of his game now versus last season. ”I have to look at last year as an anomaly and just let it go. I wasn’t ready to play at the start, I wasn’t ready to play during, and this off-season I’m ready to play. I’m optimistic to see a whole different outlook, a whole different game, a whole different competitiveness.”
The cause of Mickelson’s optimism? Three things: a retooled swing, a trimmed-down body and, seemingly, freed-up head space. Here’s how Mickelson explained his progress in each category:
I. Swing changes: Mickelson said he has been working on honing his clubface “awareness” with his coach, Andrew Getson, which has enhanced his shot-shaping skills.
“The best that it’s been was at Kiawah in ’21, as far as hitting draws, hitting fades and control of the ball,” Mickelson said. “I’m getting close to that level of shotmaking day in and day out.”
Mickelson also added that he’s practicing smarter, not harder, with an eye on efficiency.
“Rather than quantity, it’s much more quality-driven,” he said, “and I’m seeing a difference when I go out and play in the way I am kind of pulling the shots off on the golf course.”
II. Physical wellness: Mickelson said he dropped 20-plus pounds and is now down to his “college weight.” He declined to say what that weight is but did say he’s in the “best shape I’ve been in in a long time.” Mickelson — whose weight has yo-yoed throughout his professional career — said he this latest health kick was driven by a desire to reboot his body more quickly after playing. He’s eating better and focusing on his gut wellness.
“It’s changed my blood work [so I have] less inflammation, a lot more things that give me energy,” he said. “The challenge I’ve had over the last few years is I haven’t really been ready to play the following day. I haven’t recovered fast enough, and I find that I’m starting to do that much better.” He said he generally has more energy and feels “rejuvenated.”
III. Mental wellness: Given the storm of negative attention that enveloped Mickelson last year, it perhaps should have come as no surprise he floundered in competition. He just wasn’t himself — freewheeling Phil — either on the course or off.
“This last year I’ve kind of gone dark, if you will, and rightfully so,” he said. “I have to be very careful; I can’t say all the things I want to say yet. But many this year I’ll be able to. I’ll have that freedom when some of these things going on off the course get settled and become more transparent.”
“These things” surely refer to the lawsuits between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf currently working their way through the judicial system. Mickelson revels in showing off his golf smarts and sharing secrets — which is what landed him in pro-golf purgatory to begin with — and it seems he’s looking forward to the day when he can talk more freely again. That day might be coming soon.
“I have to be a little bit guarded right now,” he said. “But later this year when things are much more transparent, I’ll be able to be more engaging.”
That process has already begun. In recent weeks, Mickelson has re-engaged on social media, spouting opinions on joggers, Rory McIlroy and Mickelson’s 45 “pretty easy” PGA Tour wins. He has begun granting interviews again, and his Tuesday press conference at the Saudi event was as candid and colorful as we’ve heard him in such a setting since he joined LIV.
When asked about McIlroy and Patrick Reed’s eventful week in Dubai, Mickelson said, in part, “When you have controversy in the game, I think it creates a lot more excitement, a lot more awareness. What transpired early in the week with Patrick and Rory added to the excitement level.”
Hard to imagine Mickelson giving that same answer 6 months ago.
He added, “[In] areas that I’m able to be, I guess, more engaging, where it’s not going to cause problems with some of the things that are going on off the course, then I’m going to try to do that because I enjoy it.”
Make no mistake, Mickelson’s not just hanging around to drop takes. He still has big career goals, including breaking his own record as the oldest major winner.
Crazy talk? Not according to Mickelson.
“I’m in all majors the next three years, and nobody has really had the opportunity to do some special things with the game at this age because they haven’t been injury-free,” he said. “Like, they would get hurt and they had some struggles when they got older, and I’ve been able to play injury-free throughout my career and be in good shape at 52, and I know how to play at a high level. Now I just have to get that up.
“I’m trying to address the areas that are challenging as we get older and do something that’s unique and create kind of a life experience that occurred at Kiawah just about a year and a half ago. That’s my motivation.”