Monday 22 January 2018

Karl MacGinty: Worrying times as Phil fights for form

Mickelson decline looking terminal as US icon struggles with injury, illness and painful inconsistency

Phil Mickelson is enduring his longest run without a top-10 finish since 1993
Phil Mickelson is enduring his longest run without a top-10 finish since 1993
Phil Mickelson tee's off at the 8th during the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship
Phil Mickelson during the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship on May 4, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina

Karl MacGinty

Take a bow Golf for one of the headlines of the week at Quail Hollow – "McIlroy drives for show, putts for d'oh!"

Homer Simpson, eat your heart out!

It topped their report on Rory McIlroy's second-round 76 at the Wells Fargo, in which the Ulsterman lost the putting touch which had been such an impressive feature of his 69 on Thursday.

Try to search for it now and you'll find the report is no longer accessible on their website.

One suspects the story was overtaken by events, notably the abysmal performance of Phil Mickelson with his putter on Friday afternoon and, dismayingly, again on Sunday.

These are concerning times for Mickelson and golf.

With Tiger Woods' future shrouded in doubt as he recovers from back surgery, it's painful to watch another American icon slip inexorably into decline.

Mickelson and McIlroy were expected to take up the baton from Tiger at April's Masters but the left-hander missed the cut for the first time since 1997.

McIlroy threw in one of those bad rounds which always seem to blight him at Augusta on his way into eighth, his best at the Masters but another one of those "back-door top-10s" he regretfully described last Sunday after finishing eighth in Charlotte.

Eleven of 26 tournaments on the PGA Tour this season have been won by players in their 20s and some of them, like Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Harris English, are sublimely gifted.


Yet, on his day, McIlroy is the only member of golf's new generation capable of making the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

To return to winning ways, the 25-year-old must first bed in the new putting routine he has devised to correct an error with his alignment.

"Where I feel I'm aiming and where I'm actually aiming are two different things at the moment," he revealed after Saturday's sweet 65.

It's only a matter of weeks or maybe months before McIlroy clicks back into winning form. Valhalla, which hosts the US PGA in August, probably represents his best opportunity of a third Major.

Tragically, however, time seems to be running out for five-times Major champion Mickelson as he draws tantalisingly close to the career Grand Slam he richly deserves.

That may sound preposterous in view of his back-to-back victories at the Scottish Open and the Open Championship 10 months ago, when Mickelson won for the first time on a British seaside links and, seven days later at Muirfield, lifted the Claret Jug, a trophy he never believed he'd win.

The Californian celebrates his 44th birthday the Monday after next month's US Open at Pinehurst, which isn't old by modern standards.

Following its redesign by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the renowned No 2 course at Pinehurst should fit Mickelson's game a lot better than it did in 1999, when the American endured the first of his record six runner-up finishes at his national championship.

Of late, however, Mickelson has been so inconsistent and injury-prone, one fears for his ability to sustain a level of performance necessary to win over 72 holes in the most mentally demanding arena in golf.

Mickelson has psoriatic arthritis, and it's entirely his business how that condition or the medicine which keeps it in check affects his stamina, if at all. Yet there are times late in the day at tournaments when he looks utterly drained.

Hard statistical evidence suggests Mickelson is going through his toughest stretch in more than 20 years. He has not finished in the top 10 in 14 appearances on the PGA Tour since coming home sixth at the BMW in September.

Since his tie for second with McIlroy in Abu Dhabi in January, Mickelson has started nine tournaments, his longest run without a top-10 finish since 1993.

There's no connection between his illness and the ricked back which forced him to abandon the Farmers Insurance Open or the muscle strain which led him to withdraw on Saturday at the Texas Open.

Yet those injuries, and having to go to Augusta without an early-season win under his belt, undermined Mickelson's Masters performance.

His deft touch around the green deserted him on Thursday, when Mickelson racked up a startling triple-bogey at seven during his opening 76 as he scored four-over or worse for the third time in four rounds at Augusta. Any hopes of making the cut were then obliterated by another uncharacteristically ham-fisted triple at the 12th during Friday's 73.

Mickelson's confidence must be rocked even further by his wildly unpredictable performance on the greens at Quail Hollow.

He took just 24 putts during Thursday's 67 but needed 10 more as he slumped to a 75 on Friday.

During the glorious 65 on Saturday that kindled hopes of a 43rd US Tour win, Mickelson took just 25 putts, holing out from a cumulative 130 feet! Yet he had the proverbial 'mare' on Sunday, 33 putts contributing to the 76 which dropped him to 11th place on seven-under.

Staggeringly, he missed four times from inside four feet in the final round as his tally of holed putts amounted to just 47 feet.

Though not asked directly how he felt, Mickelson afterwards said: "I felt good and healthy all week, have for a couple of months now, and I hit a lot of good shots. I'll see Dave Stockton tomorrow and see if I can get this putter a little more consistent because I'd two great putting days and just two horrific ones."

This guy's a true hero. Not only exhilarating to watch, he's forever respectful and responsive to spectators. Nobody devotes more time to signing autographs and engaging with people – making it all the more difficult to see him in such steep decline.


Finishing in top 10 not good enough – McIlroy

RORY McILROY has finished in the top 10 in six of eight tournaments this year, but he didn't do cartwheels down I-95 to Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida for this week's $10m Players Championship at Sawgrass.

"I'm in the top 10 every week and it's fine, whatever, but it's not wins," he said of Sunday's eighth place behind JB Holmes in the Wells Fargo.

Frustration showed as he added: "They're top-10s without getting in contention either. I don't want to back-door and top-10 it every week."

Quail Hollow is far better suited to his monster driving than Pete Dye's capricious Stadium Course, where McIlroy learned through bitter experience to throttle back and forsake his best weapon, the driver, on many holes.

Yet he neatly picked his way around Sawgrass last year, making the cut for the first time in five appearances and finishing eighth in golf's 'Fifth Major'.

Padraig Harrington, runner-up here to Davis Love III in 2003 and Adam Scott in 2004, is ineligible after a rule change.

Formerly, his 125 placing in the 2013 US money list would have sufficed but FedEx now are the arbiter and Harrington was 130th in that table last season.

The struggling Dubliner, down to 206th and out of the world top 200 yesterday for the first time in 938 weeks since his rookie season in 1996, had an unbroken 12 years at the Players since 2002.

Graeme McDowell, who led into the final round in 2011 but hasn't made the cut here since, is hungry to make this a lucky seventh appearance, while Darren Clarke, sixth in 2003, marks his 10th visit to Sawgrass and first since 2006.

The course was battered last winter. Five putting surfaces were damaged by a product designed to protect them and the fourth, 11th and 12th greens were still out of play during practice yesterday.

Irish Independent

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