News & Opinion

Mickelson won’t win Open, and here’s why

You should know one thing about Pebble Beach: It is a ball-striker’s paradise. It has the smallest greens on the PGA Tour, and it is usually windy from its perch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Those two things mandate precise ball-striking.

I usually played well there decades ago during my PGA Tour career because I fit that bill. I didn’t miss many greens. So, when the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach next week, expect the best ball-strikers to rise to the top.

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Jim Nelford

I don’t know exactly who’s going to win the Open, but if the champion is a superior ball-striker, it’s a good bet that he fits a certain profile.

There are two categories of players on the PGA Tour: those who drag a square clubface through impact using their lower bodies, and those who throw the clubface in an effort to get it square at impact, using their hands, arms and shoulders.

I call them draggers and throwers, for short.

Draggers are better, more consistent ball-strikers. I’d estimate that throwers make up 90 percent of Tour players because that’s the only method being taught.

A dragger is like a baseball hitter. The batter drags the bat through the impact area while the lower body rotates. Like golfers, batters don’t roll their forearms or wrists until after they hit the ball.

A thrower rotates his forearm hard through impact. It’s a flashing move that makes the clubface turn quickly in order to reach the square position at impact. This move is an effort to compensate for flaring the clubface open during the backswing and getting it out of position.

Throwing the clubface back to square before impact requires meticulous timing. Throwers, therefore, have a much smaller margin of error and typically are streakier, although they obviously also can excel.

Let me simplify further: Draggers are lower-body players; throwers are upper-body players.

Throwers are taught to stop the lower-body rotation during the forward swing – it’s called hitting up against the left side – so the centrifugal force of the body’s rotation helps throw the clubface back into position before impact. It’s a difficult thing to get right every time.

Jack Nicklaus dragged the club through impact. So did Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Paul Azinger among the previous generation. Among today’s stars, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson are draggers.

Jordan Spieth was a dragger when he first came out on tour but started struggling with his driver, maybe after he made changes to gain distance. Now he is trying to become a thrower, a difficult transition still in progress.

The throwers include the late Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson and most other players.

Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods, the men who won the first two major championships this year, mix the two styles.

You can’t argue with Koepka’s results. He has won four of the past eight majors that he played and is going for a third straight U.S. Open title. Koepka plays with a high center of gravity, but he drags the clubface through the hitting area using the power in his left thigh. You can do that only if you’re tremendously strong.

It was fascinating to see the comparison done by some new high-tech CBS cameras at the PGA Championship. The cameras showed McIlroy turn his hips 50 degrees back on his backswing and 60 degrees through on his forward swing. That’s a 110-degree turn. Koepka’s hips turned only about 28 degrees on the backswing and 30 degrees coming through. So, McIlroy has 60 degrees more lower-body rotation than does Koepka. That explains how McIlroy drives it about the same distance even though Koepka is several inches taller and considerably bigger than McIlroy.

Koepka makes up for his reduced lower-body rotation with more upper-body turn.

That’s the tail wagging the dog. You wouldn’t do that in any other sport. Imagine if a batter tried to load up his upper body before a pitch. He wouldn’t be able to see the pitcher. All batters load up their lower bodies, which is what golfers should do.

By the time Koepka gets back to impact on his swing, he’s dragging a square clubface, not trying to throw it square, and that’s why he is so consistent. I’d love to see him lower his center of gravity by making some baseball swings as rehearsals, which would help him relax his upper body and sink into the power zone of his lower body, where he belongs. He has played impressive golf, but his high center of gravity puts pressure on his left wrist, one he already has injured.

You can chart the career of Woods pretty much by how he hit his driver. He drove it well early in his pro career, when he was really dragging the clubface through impact with a classic upright swing that was beautiful. How did he hit driver most of the rest of his career? Horribly.

Woods complained about feeling as if the club were getting stuck behind him.

I remember watching Butch Harmon, his coach, working with Tiger on that move. Butch knelt behind and to the right of Tiger, trying to put his hands up so he could keep Tiger’s club from slipping behind him. It was an attempt to fix that stuck feeling. Well, getting stuck is what happens when a player rotates the upper body first, before the lower body turns. The club goes behind the player, and from there, nothing good can happen.

Woods has drifted back toward being a dragger of the club during this comeback. Maybe back fusion forced him to use his lower body more again and rediscover that the lower body drives the golf swing. On days when he feels good, such as at the Masters, he drives it better than he has for the past 12 or so years.

Ben Hogan, like Tiger, mixed swings. For a man known as one of the best ball-strikers in history, isn’t it odd that nobody ever copied his swing? His original fix for his problem of hitting hooks was to fan the clubface more open, which then required a compensating move during the forward swing. That was a timing move, of course, and maybe the real secret of golf that Hogan dug out of the dirt was finding out how many balls he had to hit to keep his timing sharp. He used to say that if he missed a day of practice, he fell a week behind.

Mickelson would be quite a story if he were to win the Open at Pebble Beach after his record six runner-up finishes. I called him a thrower before, but that isn’t completely accurate. He and Brad Faxon keep the clubface square and drag it through impact with their wedges only. It’s no coincidence that both are considered superior wedge players.

However, as the clubs get longer, both players revert to throwing the clubface before impact. At Phil’s request, I helped one of his former college teammates become a lower-body player, and it totally turned his game around. Phil later thanked me but said he didn’t want to use that method because he believed throwing or flashing the club closed increased his clubhead speed.

You may notice Phil taking a practice swing with his driver and forcefully rolling his wrists when he does it. Phil did pick up some clubhead speed this year at age 48, but the driver remains erratic for him. Of course it does. He’s a thrower.

If the conditions at Pebble are as difficult as normal at a U.S. Open, the champion probably will be a dragger.

Sorry, Phil. It’s nothing personal.

Canadian-born Jim Nelford spent nearly three decades as a player and broadcaster on the PGA Tour. He now resides in Florida.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle