When Phil Mickelson takes an alarmingly long, hard swing to gently pop up short, soft wedge shots that land soundlessly next to the hole, he brings to mind revolutionary athletic acts such as the Luisetti one-hander or the Fosbury Flop. Every bit as much as a John Daly drive, the Phil Phlop is extreme golf.
While the flop shot is not new, no one executes it better than Mickelson. And largely because of his mastery of it, a shot that used to be considered at best a last resort and more often just plain stupid is evolving into a nearly indispensable tool on the PGA Tour.
The flop is generally hit from within 70 yards of the pin, with a wedge equipped with about 60 degrees of loft. The purpose of the shot is to land a ball close to its intended target and have it stop as quickly as possible. The flop represents a departure from conventional golf wisdom, which maintains that on short shots it is safer and more reliable to roll, rather than fly, the ball toward the hole. But like everything new in golf, the flop is a response to changing conditions: fast, multilevel greens with cups set in "table tops" surrounded by severe drops, more rough around greens, and closer competition, which has motivated players to shoot at tightly tucked "sucker" pin positions. Executed properly, the flop can take the Are out of fast greens, parachute the ball into the tightest confines, come out of rough as light as a feather and make recoveries possible from the short side of the green even from tight lies.
The first player to carry a 60-degree wedge (a conventional sand wedge has 56 degrees) was Tom Kite, who in 1980 made it an unheard-of "third wedge" after charting the performance of his short game over an extended period. Kite's aim was to have a club with which he could take a fuller swing from 75 yards and in. He also became proficient at using the extra loft and spin the club imparted to recover from tough spots around the green.
By the mid-1980s floppers were popping up everywhere. Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples and, later, Daly predicated their bold power games on the ability to recover from difficult positions. Today more than half the players on Tour carry a 60-degree wedge with low bounce. The rate is lower—but growing—on the European tour, where conditions usually make running the ball along the ground the percentage play.
Mickelson literally grew up hitting flop shots to the green his father installed in the family backyard, lofting shot after shot at pin positions so extreme they allowed no other way to get close. Mickelson is so comfortable with the flop that from a severe uphill lie, he can hit a ball that lands well behind him.
"The flop is a high-percentage shot for me," says Mickelson, who uses a 60-degree wedge of his own design. "People are afraid to flub the shot, but basically, I just play for a flub. I hit a little behind the ball and let the club slide underneath."
While the flop has become commonplace, Mickelson's advantage is his ability to hit it expertly under pressure, as he did on the 71st hole at the Phoenix Open. He had to make perfect contact on a full swing from less than 20 yards in order to save par and stay tied with Justin Leonard, whom he eventually beat in a playoff. Until further notice, that shot stands as the classic megaflop. "Nobody can stop the ball from a tight lie as well as Phil," says Brad Faxon. "Most guys won't even try that shot, especially down the stretch. That's just talent, and it's a huge weapon."