Phil uses a dif­fer­ent kind of math

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DOUG FER­GU­SON

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 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 Bri­tish Open.

The topic came up dur­ing his game Tues­day at the Bri­tish 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 three 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 four feet for birdie.

“No one hits that shot,” CBS an­a­lyst Nick Faldo ex­claimed on the tele­cast. “No one.” Phil does. 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 cen­tre 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.

DAVE THOMP­SON, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Phil Mick­el­son ges­tures as he talks to Jor­dan Spi­eth dur­ing a prac­tice round ahead of the Bri­tish Open Golf Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale on Tues­day.

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