Tour Confidential: Without Butch Harmon, What Should We Expect From Phil Mickelson in 2016?

November 9, 2015
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Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Phil Mickelson told last week that he had split with longtime coach Butch Harmon. (He’s now working with Aussie Andrew Getson from Scottsdale’s Grayhawk Golf Club.) What do you expect from Lefty in 2016?  And does the shakeup in any way damage Butch’s cred?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It’s better to expect nothing from Phil and be pleasantly surprised. But Butch’s departure doesn’t hurt his rep since Phil’s rep as a know-it-all makes him a less-than-ideal student.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Lefty has endured big-time teacher breakups before, notably with Rick Smith, and he’s far from alone as far as world-class players go in splitting with a longtime coach. Mickelson needs a fresh start–and yes, maybe a new approach–but mostly, he needs to be healthy enough to practice and apply. The guy knows how to win. He will win again in 2016. This hurts Harmon not at all. He has survived breakups with Greg Norman and Tiger Woods. He’s still Numero Uno on Tour and with his peers.

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Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: No, Butch’s teaching career will be defined forever by what he did with Tiger. I’d trust my game with him. As for Phil in ’16, I expect more of ’15. Time stoppeth for no man, except Vijay Singh and Bernhard Langer.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Phil will always be wildly unpredictable and a blast to pull for, but it’s hard to envision any kind of age 45/46 rebirth. I expect a year similar to 2015: a few weeks where he pops up on the leaderboard, including the Masters, but ultimately no wins. Butch? He’ll be just fine.

Brendan Mohler, assistant editor, (@bmohler09): Butch is and always will be one of the best teachers in the game. Golfers, even the best in the world, often rely on constant alterations and fixes to keep improving, which is why moves like this never damage the coach’s brand. Not to mention, Phil was no longer the best player in Butch’s stable (see: Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker). As for 2016, I expect Lefty to contend at the majors (especially Augusta and Baltusrol) but coming off a coaching change I don’t expect any big victories for the 45-year-old. A W at the Farmers Insurance, AT&T Pro-Am or the Humana? That wouldn’t be surprising.

2. In his autobiography released last week, caddie Steve Williams revealed some secrets about Tiger Woods and some of his other former bosses. Now that you’ve had time to digest the book (or at least read highlights of the juiciest bits), did Williams violate any kind of player-caddie confidentiality code?

VAN SICKLE: There ought to be a statute of limitations on the caddie cone of silence at some point, although there are plenty of caddies who would go to the grave before they spilled any dirt about their bosses. In the case of Tiger, one of the two most important figures in modern golf, stories about him carry historic significance since Tiger is closed off from the public behind circled wagons. So Williams, like Hank Haney, provided historical clarity to something that mattered. But I’m sure a lot of caddies and players will believe that Williams broke the code.

PASSOV: In today’s tell-all climate, are there any confidentiality codes to be respected anymore? If you still harbor old school values, then yes, Williams’ nasty jibes and ill-conceived recollections are out of bounds. I’m in favor of adding caddie-player to the list of Constitutionally protected conversations that apply to doctor-patient and lawyer-client.

BAMBERGER: There is no code. There’s an individual’s sense of right and wrong. Once you decide to write, the question becomes what to leave in and what to leave out. It wouldn’t be my place to judge what Williams decided to include, but I will say that I never thought for a minute, He’s gone too far.

RITTER: A caddie writing a tell-all about his former boss probably obliterates “the code” even if there wasn’t a formal non-disclosure agreement. Stevie wanted to tell a story and take a few shots at Tiger, and he accomplished his mission.  

MOHLER: I don’t think Williams’ book contains anything revealing enough to say that he violated a code, but that’s mainly because Hank Haney beat him to the punch. Had “The Big Miss” never been written, Williams becomes Tiger’s biggest enemy instead of Haney and “Out of the Rough” is a bestseller with the deepest insight into Tiger we’ve read. But given their lengthy relationship and the millions of dollars Williams made, if I’m Tiger, I’m pissed.


3. Tiger Woods’ first U.S. design, Bluejack National, opened last week near Houston–well, seven holes, anyway. Woods couldn’t attend due to mandated bed rest after his latest back surgery, but his team showed off a wide, playable layout with a minimum of forced carries. What are your expectations for Tiger the architect? Additionally, do you believe great players tend to make great designers?

VAN SICKLE: Tiger the architect is about 20 years too late to the business, which has all but gone away in America and is mostly based overseas. Tiger will have a tough time developing his own style as an architect because there aren’t going to be many jobs out there. Nobody is going to build hundreds of courses the way Nicklaus, Dye and Robert Trent Jones Sr. did.

PASSOV: In his first two courses, 18 holes at Diamante’s El Cardonal in Mexico and seven holes at Bluejack in Texas, Tiger has practiced what he has preached, which is very refreshing. His courses are wide, playable, with few forced carries and many ground game options. There are enough hazards and some daunting hole locations to keep the strong player stimulated, but Tiger professed he likes the ideas of people walking, needing no more than one ball and that course should emphasize variety and require imagination around the greens. Great players don’t always make great designers–some do, but others don’t show enough empathy or understanding for lesser-skilled players. Conversely, history’s best designer, Alister MacKenzie, was never a low-handicapper, but he “got it.”

BAMBERGER: I can think of two good players who were great designers: C.B. Macdonald and Donald Ross. As for great players who were great designers, I’d be hard-pressed to name one. Regarding Tiger as an architect, I’m sure he can design fine courses, as long as he doesn’t get corrupted by the process. But most of them do, these days. In the Golden Age, that was not the case.  

MOHLER: Tiger seems to be making a proper entrance into course architecture—he’s said several times that he designs with the ultimate goal of playability for all golfers. Bluejack looks like it’s met that goal. But of the great players who have made a name in course design (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman, to name a few) none are responsible for tracks that are considered classic, natural designs. And most aren’t built with playability for the masses in mind (no, Jack, not everyone can hit the high fade that lands softly from 200 yards). If Tiger can stick to his stated goal, and maybe pair up with someone from whom he can learn something (a Bill Coore or Ben Crenshaw), he’ll be on the right path.

4. Russell Knox beat a stellar field in Shanghai that included Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, among others, to become the fourth first-time winner in the last four PGA Tour events. Should Jordan, Rory and Jason be getting nervous? 

VAN SICKLE: You can’t be a multiple PGA Tour winner until you win the first one. Knox is yet another example of the talent still brewing out there, players like Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo and Rookie of the Year Daniel Berger. Should they be worried? Not just yet, laddie.

PASSOV: Congrats to Knox for his big win and the accompanying perks. I still look at this event–and the CIMB in Malaysia–as Silly Season cash grabs, no matter what the PGA Tour calls them. If you have to stay awake until 3 a.m. EST to see a Tour event conclude live, on the other side of the world, it’s not worth caring about. If Knox and the other first-timers begin beating out Jordan, Rory and Jason in the majors, or at the Players or Honda or Memorial, for that matter, then maybe everybody should worry a bit.

BAMBERGER: That threesome should be saying, “Bring it on!” More talent at the top, more guys who can win, makes the game more interesting.

MOHLER: Absolutely not. Sure, the HSBC has produced big-name winners in recent years (DJ, Bubba, Poulter, Kaymer, Mickelson) but the new Fall Series exists for players like Knox. Jordan, Rory and Jason know better than to achieve peak performance in November, nearly five months before the first tournament that REALLY matters. Also, Rory and Jordan were a combined 29-under par at Sheshan International, which is nothing to sneeze at. I can’t find much to worry about for the top-3 ranked players in golf.


5. Knox only got into the HSBC when JB Holmes withdrew, and he had to scramble to obtain visas for himself and his caddie, hence his wife taking the bag for his practice round. Then he won. What’s the most improbable Tour win you’ve seen?

VAN SICKLE: Nothing beats John Daly getting into the 1991 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate and then winning it after arriving in Indianapolis at the last minute. It’s hard to imagine two eligible players skipping a major these days, much less eight. Still, the first guy who passed on that ’91 PGA was Gene Sarazen, who had a lifetime exemption. He started the dominoes falling for Daly. Brad Bryant was the final dropout that got Daly into the field. With bigger purses and world ranking points now, I don’t think anything like Daly happens again in a major.

RELATED: John Daly’s Career in Photos

PASSOV: Easy answer is John Daly, getting his tee time as ninth alternate at the 1991 PGA after driving all night from Memphis. Ben Curtis’ out-of-nowhere win at the 2003 British Open ranks right up there. My favorite is Johnny Miller’s shocking triumph at the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He was essentially retired, had played no more than two PGA Tour events in a year since 1989 and hadn’t had a Top 5 since he also stunned the Pebble field to win in 1987.

BAMBERGER: John Daly, 1991 PGA Championship, Crooked Stick.   

MOHLER: Y.E. Yang’s victory over Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship is the biggest stunner I’ve seen. Yang came into the event ranked 110th in the world and unknown to most golf fans but left as No. 34 and the Tiger slayer. Tiger’s final-round 75 certainly helped Yang’s cause — Woods led by two through 54 holes — but Yang was one of few unknown players toward the top of the leaderboard at Hazeltine, and he reached 8-under when only nine players broke par for the week. Most stunning, however, may have been the lasting effect this loss would seem to have on Woods’ career.

6. West Coast golfers this week were treated to a temporary nine-hole course built within the confines of Petco Park in San Diego, the stadium that houses the San Diego Padres. Where would be your ideal choice to route a memorable temporary golf course?

VAN SICKLE: The windmills of Holland would be my first choice. Second? Chernobyl. Last one dead wins.

PASSOV: Given how I feel about my game right now, I’m picking the island off San Francisco that houses Alcatraz, the forbidding former federal penitentiary. Outstanding ocean panoramas from every hole, the opportunity to work the ball in the wind and an invigorating trip to and from the links are highlights. I’d like Pete Dye to join me as co-designer. Admittedly, the 19th hole is a bit of a downer, but at least my rope-hook tee shots into the gunch give enhanced meaning to “I’m in jail.”

BAMBERGER: Central Park, New York City. Or the Ho Hum Beach, Bellport, N.Y.–in the beautiful rolling sand dunes there, between the bay and that ocean, that have been begging for a golf course forever.

RITTER: How about on Augusta National’s stately, spacious driving range? It would be a chance for fans to experience the thrill of hitting shots inside Augusta’s gates and to tour some of the facilities. Putting surfaces already dot the range, so no need to create new ones. I see no reason why Augusta’s membership wouldn’t green-light this project immediately.

MOHLER: This is a no-brainer: Central Park. Manhattan is as golf-deprived as any metropolis in the U.S. and offers more land than a creative course designer would know what to do with. In getting it done, there’d be a few more hoops to jump through than somewhere like Petco Park, but imagine hitting full shots around the biggest park in one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s shocking to me that this hasn’t already been done (a quick Google search of “Central Park Golf” reveals nada) and it seems like the coolest place for a unique grow-the-game event.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.