News & Opinion

Mickelson earns right to play less often

Phil Mickelson still can make a golf ball do wondrous things around the green – flop shots landing softly, pitch shots crawling close, chips tracking toward the hole. He just can’t always keep the ball in play before then, a persistent issue growing only more troublesome at this stage of his career.

He also can’t fend off the realities of middle age, so don’t expect to see as much of Mickelson in 2019.

And that’s perfectly acceptable. Maybe it’s time, even.

Mickelson will not make 24 starts in the just-launched PGA Tour season (as he did during the 2017-18 season), which he christened by showing up at the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., last week. It was his sixth start in seven weeks, and his eighth in 10 weeks, and the fatigue showed when he faded on the weekend and tied for 17th against a mediocre field.

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Phil Mickelson intends to play fewer tournaments during the 2018-19 PGA Tour season, and that could be a good move for him and the Tour.

He also offered a splash of news by declaring that he will play less often in the coming year. Mickelson is 48 now, no doubt content with his legacy beyond one obvious, glaring gap: no U.S. Open victory.

So, he’s planning to scale back, mostly because his concentration wanes when he plays too much. This may frustrate fans who attend the events that he will drop from his schedule – Mickelson is all too aware of this – but he has earned the right to be selective.

Forty-three victories, including five major championships, and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame should be worth something, right?

Mickelson clearly sees his career through a different lens than he did even a few years ago. Twice in Napa – once after shooting 65 in the first round and again after a second-round 69 – he brought up his age as part of an answer, unprompted by reporters.

Now, it’s easy to be cynical about Mickelson, who can make excuses with the best of ’em. But he seemed genuine this time, offering a window into his recent struggles and his thinking moving forward.

“I’m going to have to start limiting the number of tournaments I play, so I can play those at a higher level,” Mickelson said. “I’m getting a little bit more mental fatigue. I’m not able to focus and see the shot as clearly as I’d like for so many weeks in a row.”

Then he added, “As I looked at my schedule next year, I think there will be some I miss that people will be upset about. But I’m not going to worry about it.”

It makes sense on many levels. Mickelson played sluggishly in August and September, from his missed cut at the PGA Championship and tie for 58th at the BMW Championship to his T-30 (last place) at the Tour Championship and uninspired 0-2 showing at the Ryder Cup.

Beyond these results, it’s entirely understandable for Mickelson to trim his playing schedule. Those 24 starts last season represented his busiest season since 2002, when he played in 26 events. Since turning pro midway through the 1992 season, Mickelson has made at least 18 starts each year.

That’s lots of golf, lots of travel and a heavy toll on body and mind.

Mickelson’s decision might help the PGA Tour embrace its next generation more enthusiastically. That movement already has started, with Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas front and center.

But the specter of Tiger Woods and Mickelson always lingers, given the way they move the so-called needle (especially Woods). That’s why Mickelson realizes he’ll hear about it when he starts skipping events in which he traditionally plays.

Expect him to drop a West Coast tournament or two, possibly the stops at Palm Springs and/or Riviera; the Bridgestone event no longer exists; Greenbrier moves to the fall; and maybe he will skip his traditional U.S. Open preparation at Memphis and another one or two.

This is Mickelson’s right, especially after 27 seasons on tour. And if scaling back rejuvenates him, and he plays his way into contention at a major championship, then it’s all the better.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick