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Phil Mickelson’s Masters game plan wouldn’t work for most amateurs

Instead of a radical equipment change, recreational players should take a cue from Ben Hogan’s approach for the 1953 British Open

I read with interest the equipment changes Phil Mickelson plans to make for the Masters (“2020 Masters: Phil Mickelson opts for longer driver shaft,” Nov. 5). He may go with a longer 47½-inch shaft in his driver to get more clubhead speed and longer drives to take certain bunkers at Augusta National Golf Club out of play and, in some instances, to have his ball land on a downhill slope, for more roll. Mickelson also is planning to use clubs with heads designed for getting the ball up in the air faster, i.e., performance-enhancing clubs, to negate the effects of fairways mowed from green to tee, which leave the ball resting against the grain.

Mickelson’s thinking on a game plan and equipment is always interesting, although following Mickelson’s lead probably wouldn’t improve most golfers’ games.

Ben Hogan approached things differently. Hogan never had bothered to play in the British Open. Reasons for his reluctance included the time it took to travel by ship across the Atlantic (one week each way); the cost (the purse for the winner was so small, about £500, or about $1,400) that it would just cover travel expenses, at best; and the fact that the R&A had banned center-shafted putters similar to the one that Hogan used.

1953 changed Hogan’s thinking. The R&A had reversed its ban on center-shafted putters one year earlier, and Hogan had won the U.S. Open and the Masters in 1953. His friends Walter Hagen, who’d won the British Open four times in the 1920s, and Sam Snead, who’d won in 1946, told Hogan that he had to win the British Open if he wanted to be regarded as the dominant golfer of his era.

The 1953 British Open was scheduled for Carnoustie. Hogan went to Scotland two weeks early to practice and get his game attuned to links golf. Unlike Augusta National and Oakmont, where Hogan had just won the Masters and U.S. Open, respectively, the fairways at Carnoustie were not closely cropped. The links turf caused the ball to sit up. Hogan didn’t make an equipment change; he made a swing change.

Instead of hitting down on the ball and taking a divot, Hogan practiced “picking” the ball off the turf without taking a divot. Though he played Carnoustie several times ahead of the Open, he switched to nearby Panmure Golf Club for practice because Carnoustie was using the forward tees for practice rounds, not the back tees to be used by R&A for the Open proper. Hogan “learned” the Carnoustie course by walking it backwards from the 18th green to the first tee every evening, to help him identify landing areas and trouble spots.

It was mind over matter for Hogan. That said, if there had been different equipment available to Hogan, which would have resolved the way the ball sat on the fairways at Carnoustie to Hogan’s satisfaction, I suspect that he probably would have tried it.

John Fischer
(Fischer, a retired attorney, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee.)

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