SOUTHPORT, England — Maybe everyone has had it all wrong about Phil Mickelson.
Picture any number of creative shots Mickelson has produced over the years, most of them with a lob wedge, occasionally a shot with such incredible speed and loft that he can send the ball high over his head in the opposite direction.
It looks as though Lefty is willing to take on any risk, except that he rarely sees it that way. Mickelson says he simply is playing the percentages.
“My math is different from anyone else,” Mickelson said.
The Mickelson math is not just about numbers or any equations he considers when trying to pull off a shot. Mostly it’s an understanding of what he can do with the golf ball, which opens up so many more possibilities.
It’s what has kept him so wildly entertaining over 26 years, a career that features 45 victories worldwide and five majors, the last one at Muirfield four years ago in the Open Championship.
The topic came up during his game Tuesday at the Open with Jon Rahm against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
Spieth was talking about a shot Mickelson hit from a short-sided position left of the second green at the TPC Sawgrass during The Players Championship. It was a flat lie that would require a low shot with spin, or so he thought.
Mickelson hit a full flop shop to about 3 feet.
What amazed Spieth — annoyed him, really — was how Mickelson handed the club to his caddie and pinched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the gallery. That’s it. He made it look as though it was no big deal.
“I would have gone to Michael and said, ‘That was sick,‘” Spieth said, referring to his caddie, Michael Greller. And for the next few minutes, Spieth and Mickelson debated whether the shot deserved a stronger reaction than Lefty allowed.
A few holes later, Mickelson gave an illustration.
“Let me show you a special shot for this championship,” he said in a mock Scottish brogue, perhaps forgetting that Royal Birkdale is in England.
He dropped five balls down on the tight turf to the right of the green on the par-3 seventh hole. A few yards in front of him was a pot bunker. A few yards behind the bunker was a ridge that ran down about 10 feet to where his caddie had placed a hole-sized placard as the target.
Mickelson had a 64-degree wedge that he laid so far open that the face was parallel to the ground, and he took a full swing. From the thump of the turf came a shot straight up in the air and over the bunker, rolling out slowly to about 4 feet. And then he hit another just like it. And another. And then two more, all perfect.
He saw the shot because he knew he could hit the shot.
Mickelson thought back to the third round of the Masters in 2012 when he went over the green on the par-5 15th hole. Instead of a chip-and-run up the slope and onto the green, or even the supposedly “safe” route of hitting putter, Mickelson opened the face of his 64-degree wedge and hit a full flop shot to about 4 feet for birdie.
“No one hits that shot,” CBS analyst Nick Faldo exclaimed on the telecast. “No one.“
He knew that at worst with that flop shot, it would go a little long but have enough spin that it wouldn’t roll out. But if he were to take the putter, he would have had to aim more to the left. And if he hit it too hard, it could have rolled all the way off the green and possibly into the water. So in his mind, he played it safe.
It just looked incredibly risky.
“I never saw that high flop shot from there,” said Peter Hanson, who was in a similar spot in the group before Mickelson arrived.
That was Mickelson’s point.
It’s all about what a player can see, and that’s not always the same as others. His math is different, even if he doesn’t always get the result right.
One case would be Bay Hill in 2002 when Mickelson was one shot behind Tiger Woods and in the trees right of the fairway on the par-5 16th. Instead of punching out, where it could have run through the firm fairway and into more rough, he tried a 4-iron under the branches, over the water and onto the green.
He only got the first part right. The ball found the water. A bad decision. Mickelson said it was only bad execution.
An hour after the tournament was over, a magazine writer came back into the media center and said he had visited the site and seen the divot, and that Mickelson had no shot. Of course he didn’t. The writer doesn’t play golf like Mickelson, so he couldn’t see it.
Mickelson said for years he has been amused to read about these high-risk shots, when to him it was really the only shot that made sense.
That won’t change his reputation, of course.
“Players still look at him as high risk,” Spieth said. “He can make shots look more difficult than they need to be. But that’s why he’s so fun to watch. That’s why he’s ‘Phil the Thrill.‘“
High risk? It sure can look that way, just not to Mickelson.
High thrills? No one will argue that.