As he nears 50, Mickelson retools his game to focus on ball speed, clubhead speed and the distance required to win on the PGA Tour
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Jack Nicklaus had the nickname of Carnac when he was playing on the PGA Tour.
The name – Carnac the Magnificent was a recurring comedic role played by the late Johnny Carson of “Tonight Show” fame – was a term of endearment for the game’s best player, who seemed to know it all.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson did his best Carnac impersonation here Wednesday at the site of this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, when he is a five-time winner and the defending champion. He discussed the intricacies of ball speed and clubhead speed and how a soon-to-be 50-year-old still can compete on the PGA Tour.
It all comes down to speed.
Back when Nicklaus was playing the PGA Tour on a consistent basis, there was no discussion of ball speed or clubhead speed.
Everyone knew that Nicklaus was long, suggesting the sheer nature of his physique was the difference. At 5 feet 10 inches and about 190 pounds in his prime, he simply overpowered a golf course and his competitors. When Nicklaus was racking up 73 victories on the PGA Tour from 1962 to 1986, he got no credit for his ball and clubhead speeds, but they must have been superior to those of most of his peers.
Today, launch monitors have changed the way players look at how their games work. The data provide the key to the code of potentially better play.
“You can out-putt, you can out-strike, you can have great weeks and win golf tournaments without being the longest guy or without overpowering a golf course, but you cannot dominate the sport without speed,” Mickelson said. “You might be able to do it for a year or two, but you can't out-perform everyone consistently without clubhead speed, because there's no substitute for speed in this game.”
In 1993, in his first season as a professional, Mickelson averaged 269.2 yards off the tee, ranking 26th on the PGA Tour. In the next 10 years, Mickelson gained 37 yards, averaging 306 to rank third in 2003.
Mickelson equates some of his distance gain to training and swinging the club faster, but a majority of the jump was with the golf ball and the change from the wound core to a solid core.
“It would spin 34-, 3,500 rpm,” Mickelson said of the spin rate of the old wound ball. “It's not that the ball came off slower; it just had so much drag in the spin. And when we created that solid-core technology, we were able to reduce the spin and increase the launch and also perimeter-weight the ball, so that made a big difference, too, because it wasn't curving as much and that allowed guys to hit it the same speed off the face, but get rid of 12- to 1,500 RPMs of spin and reduce the drag and get the ball to fly right through the air.”
Yet, Mickelson said that for him to compete at the highest level in his 28th season on Tour, he needs to create more speed in his game.
From 2008 through 2018, Mickelson had only one year when his clubhead speed topped 120 mph: 120.08 in 2009. In 2017, his clubhead speed had fallen to 114.24 mph, dropping his ball speed to 170.49. That year, he ranked 89th in driving distance, at 293.5 yards. For the sake of comparison in 2017, Ryan Brehm led the Tour in clubhead speed, at 128.18 mph, nearly 14 mph faster than Mickelson; Brandon Hagy led the Tour in ball speed, at 186.79 mph, more than 16 mph faster than Mickelson.
That was when Mickelson knew that he needed to work toward creating more speed to be able to compete. He aimed toward boosting his clubhead speed to 120 mph or more.
“That's an important part for me to feel like I'm not at a disadvantage before I even tee off,” Mickelson said. “I still have to go do all the other parts, and that's been a challenge, too, but I couldn't start until I had the speed.”
Mickelson says he is swinging the club not only faster but better, more on plane, striking the ball more solidly. As a result, he says he is hitting the ball longer and swinging the club faster than he had in many years. He is back up to 305.1 yards in driving distance, ranking 40th on Tour.
“But there's a lot more to winning than just hitting bombs, and I'm trying to put all those pieces together,” he said. “I'm enjoying the challenge.”
With a third-place finish last week at the European Tour’s Saudi International, Mickelson posted his first made cut in three starts in 2020. Now that he is back in the U.S., he hopes to build on that momentum at a place where he has enjoyed so much success.
“After I won last year, I knew I was going to go out and just crush the rest of the year, and the rest of the year crushed me,” Mickelson said of 2019. “I didn't play up to my level of expectation, and it just kind of snowballed and got worse.
“But this is a different year, and I've had a great off season and a lot of good things have happened in the last three, four months. I'm very excited for the year. The first two weeks didn't go as planned, but the rest of the year is going to be very good.”
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