Phil Mickelson will go down as one of the greatest golfers of all-time – for his talent, his longevity and the fact he has played the sport alongside some of the greatest competitors to pick up a golf club.
The man nicknamed ‘Lefty’ (he’s actually right-handed and only plays left-handed because was mirroring his father’s swing) is one of only 12 players in the game to have won at least three of the four majors, with three Masters victories, a PGA Championship and an Open win.
The first of those, coming in 2004 at Augusta National, was one that he puts down to a bit of fortune, hard work and help from his Grandfather. His five major trophies added to 44 PGA Tour event wins and two World Golf Championships, taking him over 50 tournament victories.
Six runner-up finishes in the only major he has failed to win, the US Open, means he is still outside of the exclusive club of players to have won all four – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Mickelson fans have been enjoying his overnight conversion to social media, and RSNG caught up with him to find out why he says all of is success is down psychology, the surprising crossover between long-range sniper rifles and golf clubs, and how his calves went viral in 2019!
RSNG You’ve always been a golfer who looks at the game in a very analytical way, haven’t you? PHIL MICKELSON, GOLFER ‘There’s a lot that I process on every shot and there’s a lot of detail. In practice, I build a reference and that means that I play the same shot again and again, with a nine-iron about 145 yards, just for example.’
‘That shot will differ dependent on what the weather is like, how high above and low below sea level, I am – and that will also change at different times of the day.’
‘Some people will say that they are able to hit their wedge shots 120 yards and they may well be right in a set environment. But, again for example, if they hit that shot in the morning, that shot isn’t going to go 120 yards.’
‘Maybe in the afternoon when the temperature gets up and the ball is also ‘hotter’. In the morning, that same shot is going to go five or ten yards less in distance and this is something that people forget to take into account.’
‘Another thing to think about and factor in, is that the ball spin will increase, and it will land shorter if there is ever a bit of water in between it and the clubface. Also, if the if the ball is sitting up or popped up above the earth itself, for example on top of grass or on a tee, it will always go about five yards further because the centre of gravity is beneath the ball and not in contact with it.’
I hit 1500 balls every month to the specific distances and yardage to make sure I am very comfortable with and aware of my distance control
RSNG So, you really take all of those things into account in that short space of time? PM ‘I have got to absolutely consider every single thing such as those I have mentioned when I take each shot and see where the ball lies and I need to know and work out, how the ball is going to come out of its position in relation to the club I am going to play the shot with and what I feel my normal yardage with that club, is.’
‘I have a normal 100% swing, which I would call my ‘stock’ swing and then I have another shot for each iron I use, which is basically with the same velocity but with a truncated backswing. So, I need to think about all of the variables, including the weather, the temperature, the wind, the lie, the environment the ball is in and the environment around the ball.’
‘All these things are the exact thought processes that I go through when I am analysing the shot. This is what allows me to be as accurate as possible with my approach shots.’
‘In practice, I hit 1500 balls every month to the specific distances and yardage to make sure I am very comfortable with and very much aware of my distance control. If I know that I am going to play a certain shot, then I can be quite certain to a high-percentage of accuracy that when I play that distance, I know it’s going to be there within a yard or two.’
‘I know that that is a very long-winded answer, but that is exactly the way I deal with my golf game and that’s the reason I am pretty certain about my game and I like to let people know – who are interested – exactly the effort and dedication and the lengths I have gone to in my career to try and make the most of my ability.’
The psychology is in every shot, and determines how you hold the club, how you swing, how you follow through
RSNG How much of your success over the years has been down to psychology? PM ‘All of it. And for every player who has ever played the game. It’s all about the psychology of the sport. The psychology is in every shot, and determines how you hold the club, how you swing, how you follow through.’
‘If you doubt yourself then that shot is different and will probably go wrong. If you believe in yourself that perfect shot may well feel like the easiest thing in the world.’
‘It’s also not the psychology out on the course. It’s when you’re in your hotel room at night; it’s travelling to the course. I think the players who make the best shots are those who have all of that aligned.’
‘Put another way, if you are out on any of those things you just won’t win tournaments. It took me a couple of decades to realise that.’
RSNG Tell us about the strength and conditioning regime that added 7mph to your clubhead speed – what exercise or workout you find the most rewarding (apart from ‘Calves Day’)? PM ‘I’ve been talking about the point and pull quite a bit on Twitter. It’s all there. It’s been a lot of fun getting my lower half into shape, and now I just need to work on the rest of me!’
‘I was surprised just how easy it was to get my calves working efficiently having spent years walking courses with little strains and aches. I just thought that was how it would be as I got older, but it doesn’t have to be that way.’
‘Your legs really are at the centre of total body fitness, so I knew that’s where I should start, and it has gone pretty well. Some of the feedback has been funny, but I am genuinely real happy to be where I am at with my calves. I feel a lot fitter and have much more energy, much more strength.’
RSNG You’ve posted pics of you at the shooting range with a sniper rifle – how much crossover is there between long-range sniper shooting and golf? PM ‘There is more to it than you may think. Of course, people will question what sniping has to do with trying to get a ball up and down at Augusta, but for me a lot of it is to do with that moment just before you let yourself go… it’s that squeezing a trigger or pulling back your arm to get the swing going on a crucial approach shot.’
‘In that split second you have done all the mental preparation you need to, and you need absolute calm and confidence in your head. If you could bottle that split-second of calm, concentration and focus I think you could be a very rich man!’
‘So it’s much more about that than it is accuracy. You can’t really compare the two pursuits because one is a direct hit and the other a very calculated approach that brings in so many other conditions such as wind speed and direction, hazards, ground condition and the ability to swing a ball around a corner, which you’re unlikely to do with a .243.’
RSNG Has anything fully unexpected happened this year? PM ‘Well just this summer I ended up evacuated from my hotel with all my golf clubs stuck on the top floor. I was at Medina for the final day of the BMW Championship and was due to tee off about 10.50 in the morning.’
‘Lightning had struck causing a power outage and the roof caught fire, so everyone got evacuated. There we all are waiting to get back in and I’m like, ‘I’m going to miss my tee-off time here!” Obviously safety is more important than any golf tournament, and in the end it was all OK.’
‘It reminded me of a time about a decade ago where we sat around for over half a day at the Singapore Open waiting for a storm to pass. We got to the point where, mentally, we were like ‘this thing isn’t happening today’, just for one of the organisers to stick their head around the corner – ‘you’re on’.’
‘When that happens is kinda difficult to get your head in the right space having been on hold for so long, but lightning and golf courses seem to follow each other around a lot, so it’s one of those things you get used to over the years.’
RSNG You’ve said that you felt the influence of your just-passed-away Grandfather when you won the first of your three Masters titles - talk us through that? PM ‘Well, my grandfather on my mum’s side said before he passed away in the January of 2004, that he felt it was my time to win a major golf tournament. I used to pass him flags from the events that I had won on the PGA Tour and jokingly, he told me that he had no more room for the less prestigious wins and wanted a flag from one of the majors.’
‘It turned out that he was right, it was my time, and in the April of 2004, I won at Augusta for the first time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to see it. If you look at the putt on the final hole, I was playing with Chris DiMarco and we both had the same line. He went first and that gave me the chance to see what his ball was going to do.’
‘He played with a bit more pace than mine and he lipped out on the left-hand side of the hole. So, I tried to adjust and adapt to what I had seen, and I played mine with a bit more break, but as it got closer to the hole, it started to go onto the same line as Chris’s putt.’
‘However, mine had a little less pace and it grabbed onto the left side of the hole, went around the cup and fell into the hole. That gave me the Masters and I said: “Oh my God, finally!” But also, part of me was also thinking that my grandfather above was willing it in and that it made all of the difference.’
‘I have a memento which I always take onto the golf course with me, but only when I pay at Pebble Beach – and that’s the silver dollar which my grandfather gave to me before he died. He was a such an inspiration to me and that way I can always remember him when I am on the golf course.’
RSNG Does golf get tougher or easier? PM ’Definitely easier, not because of how I play, but because the older you get the more you realise it matters less. When my wife was battling against cancer it put absolutely everything in the most immaculate clarity. I still cared about golf, but I didn’t have to believe it was the most important thing in the world anymore.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Mickelson pull off some unlikely escapes…