Saturday 20 January 2018

Mickelson's Masters shot ranks among the greatest

All the best players have produced strokes of genius to separate them from the rest in the major championships, writes Dermot Gilleece

I n the wake of a memorable Masters, Phil Mickelson's breathtaking six iron off pine needles has already been accepted among the all-time great shots of the major championships. And for one leading commentator, these also include a certain five wood to Royal Birkdale's 17th green in the 2008 Open.

"These are the shots that separate the great players from the rest," said Andy North, the two-time former US Open champion who walked the last 18 holes of the British Open with Pádraig Harrington two years ago, reporting for American television. "Bring it off, and the tournament's over. That's what Pádraig did at Birkdale and Phil effectively did the same last Sunday."

Comparing Mickelson's instinct last Sunday with the events of July 2008, the American said: "When the great players get themselves into a certain position with victory in their sights, they feel compelled to take on even the most potentially dangerous shots. Thinking back to Birkdale, people don't realise how good Pádraig's shot (272-yard five wood) was.

"I'm thinking not about the fact that he hit it to three or four feet from the hole, as Phil did, but the difficulty of the shot. He had a very awkward lie and it would have been real easy to lay it up short of the cross-bunkers and just pitch it on and try to make birdie that way. Phil had the same sort of option but like Pádraig, he produced a shot that's going to go down in history."

Even after a few days of reflection, Mickelson's tournament colleague, Davis Love, remained bowled over by the bravery of the 207-yard shot to within four feet of the 13th flag. "Hitting it between trees and off pine straw to a green fronted by water . . . maybe it wasn't so crazy," he said with a smile. "That's Phil. He wants to win so badly he's going to convince himself he can hit that shot, which he'll pull off seven or eight times out of 10. And he'll get criticised for the two or three times it doesn't come off."

The ultimate six-iron shot, of course, was the one astronaut Alan Shepard hit on the moon. On an earthly level, however, Mickelson's effort reminded me of a sensational six iron from the 1984 Open Championship at St Andrews. That was where Seve Ballesteros faced a daunting shot of 210 yards from the left rough on the 17th to one of the shallowest par-four greens in championship golf.

Aware of the loft he needed for height of shot which would hold the ball on the green, the Spaniard chose the six. As with Mickelson, it couldn't have been calculated simply on yardage. Rather was it the product of keen golfing instincts, refined in countless rounds of competition at the highest level.

On a broader level, there was the decisive one iron which Jack Nicklaus smashed 218 yards into the wind to within six inches of the pin on the short 17th at Pebble Beach in the 1972 US Open. And we remember Tom Watson's two iron to the 18th at Birkdale in 1983 and the four iron by Tiger Woods to the 14th at Hoylake in the 2006 Open.

When we talked here last week, North also urged Harrington's supporters to be less critical of a lapse in form which saw him miss his first Masters cut since 2005. And he saw no reason for the Dubliner to have his coach in attendance, as in Butch Harmon with Mickelson and Hank Haney with Woods.

North talked of the player's admirable work ethic and long-time association with coach Bob Torrance. "He trusts Bob completely, which is important, and Bob has been great for him," he said. "But that doesn't mean Pádraig has to have him at the majors.

"In my view, there's too much coaching going on at tournaments. Did you ever see Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer with their coaches? The key work is done during the weeks leading up to an event and if a player is still trying to figure things out on the Wednesday of tournament week, he's in trouble. In the case of Haney and Harmon, I suspect their only function during the week of a major is to offer moral support.

"Pádraig is no different to a lot of other great players who have had lapses in form from time to time. Golf is a game of ebbs and flows. Look at how Phil (Mickelson) played at Augusta compared to his form earlier this year. It can be frustrating as hell but that's the way golf is. Trust me, Harrington is mentally strong enough to see himself through this. And it may happen a lot sooner than you think."

In my travels last week, I also came across Ricky Barnes, who has had quite a change of fortune since an Irish visit in 2004, when he missed the cut in both the Smurfit European Open and the Irish Open.

"I met the nicest people there and I hope to get back to Ireland, but not before I get security on tour here for a couple of years," he said.

His problem is that his best form is reserved for the major championships and he has qualified for only two of them in the last year. Mind you, a share of second place in the US Open last June and tied 10th last Sunday delivered tidy, combined earnings of $754,830.

Though he is a contract player of Wilson clubs, he hasn't met their leading exponent, Harrington. But in the fourth-to-last pairing at Augusta National last Sunday, he was surrounded by other big names in an event he hopes can be a turning point in his career. "It was great not only to get back to the Masters but to get some good worldwide exposure by playing well," he added, while practising for this weekend's Verizon Heritage Tournament at Harbour Town.

"I saw Mickelson's shot on TV. It was probably the turning point for him because if he pulled off that shot he knew he was going to win. That's his game. He probably felt that if he had a four iron or less out of the straw, he'd have a go. Would I have done it? Who knows."

After capturing the 2002 US Amateur in which he beat Hunter Mahan in the final, Barnes was low amateur in the Masters the following April. But it took him until the end of 2008 to get a full card through the Nationwide tour. Now, at 29, he looks to be finally finding his feet.

Meanwhile, the predictable news that Woods has entered the US Open at Pebble Beach in June has been followed by an unusually early decision to play in the Quail Hollow Championship starting on April 29. This is a clear acknowledgement of his need to overcome the rust of a five-month lay-off, so apparent last weekend.

It also indicates an intention to compete in the Players Championship at Sawgrass (May 6-9), with the Memorial (June 3-6) a further possibility. Though security plans for an anticipated sell-out at Quail Hollow were made well in advance of the announcement, the feeling here is that Woods can't expect the polite reception he got from galleries at Augusta. Spectators at 'normal' tournaments have no fear of losing precious badges. So, he could be subjected to decidedly raucous or possibly abusive treatment, especially around the famous 17th at Sawgrass, where he won't have the protection of tight, Masters security.

Mickelson's future tournament plans are also somewhat uncertain because of his wife's ongoing cancer treatment, but these arch-rivals are sure to clash at Pebble. And apart from last Sunday's victory, Mickelson has been doing rather well of late in their personal duel. He held off Woods to win the Tour Championship last autumn and also overcame him when capturing the HSBC Championship in Shanghai in November.

Sunday Independent

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