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afternoon, moments before he stepped to the 1st tee at the Players Championship
for the most momentous round he has played in a while, Phil Mickelson offered
his new swing coach a soul handshake and a manly slap on the back. "Thanks
for everything, Butch," said Mickelson, and those four little words added
yet another layer of intrigue to the ongoing melodrama that is his career.
Butch would be Claude Harmon Jr., known far and wide by his nickname and for
his work as Tiger Woods's former instructor, most notably during Woods's run
from 1999 through 2002, the most dominant golf ever played.
"What's most exciting is I feel as if we're just getting started," Mickelson, 36, said following his 31st career victory, which was worth a PGA Tour record $1.62 million. "This is only week number three [working with Harmon]. In three months how much am I going to progress? In three years where am I going to be? I've seen an immediate difference in three weeks, and I can't wait for another three weeks to go by and to start getting ready for the U.S. Open."
Ah, the Open, the tournament that is to Mickelson what the Masters was to Greg Norman--an annual psychodrama defined by heartbreaking near misses. Mickelson has finished second at four of the last eight national championships, and two blown opportunities have been particularly brutal: his double bogey on the 71st hole at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and the instantly infamous double last year on the final hole at Winged Foot. That last train wreck had a dramatic effect on Mickelson's career, putting him in a funk that lasted the rest of last year, including a dead-man-walking performance at the Ryder Cup.
In an off-season of reflection he resolved to get in better shape and to straighten out his driving, spurred by the bitter memory of having hit only two of 14 fairways on that Sunday at Winged Foot, including a particularly wild drive on the final hole. But Mickelson is famously stubborn, and though he worked hard in the winter with swing coach Rick Smith, he resisted making the obvious fix of shortening a backswing that had grown nearly as long as John Daly's.
Smith began working with Mickelson in 1997, and in recent years there have been whispers that he was too close to Mickelson to give him the blunt truth about the flaws in his long, loose action. (Smith and Mickelson are partners in a handful of business ventures, and their wives are best friends.)
Though the aftermath of Winged Foot had strained the relationship between coach and pupil, all seemed right in Phil's orbit in early February, when he drove the ball beautifully at Pebble Beach on the way to tying the tournament scoring record. Following his five-stroke victory, he pronounced that he had expunged the memories of the U.S. Open, but that was wishful thinking. The real test was always going to be how he fared on a Sunday afternoon when his swing wasn't perfectly grooved, and the next week, in L.A., Mickelson got a painful reminder of his frailties. Leading by a stroke on the final hole at Riviera, he blasted a loose drive to the left, made a mental error on his second shot--stop us if you've heard this before--then followed that under-clubbed approach with a weak pitch and a shaky putt. The homely bogey forced a playoff, which Mickelson handed to Charles Howell with a bogey on the third extra hole.
Two days after that blowup Mickelson was on the range at the Accenture Match Play Championship, outside Tucson. Smith hadn't made the trip, so Phil called over Harmon to look at his swing. Mickelson is many things, but naive isn't one of them. He had to know this would create a stir, as the large pressroom was only a few steps from the range. Mickelson has long been known for an intense loyalty to his inner circle, so it is a measure of his desperation that he would put Smith in such an awkward position, especially given that their families had planned to take a ski vacation together in Aspen the following week.
Though Mickelson predictably downplayed his brief summit with Harmon, when the two worked together again a month later, on the range at the CA Championship at Doral, the media began the Smith deathwatch. The speculation reached a fever pitch after Mickelson's erratic 24th-place finish at the Masters.
Part of what made all the conjecture so juicy is that Harmon and Smith are two of the biggest personalities in the gossipy, cliquish, hypercompetitive world of brand-name instructors. Smith is slick and media savvy; Harmon has as much ego as Norman and Woods, having taken both to No. 1 in the world. A couple weeks after the Masters, Mickelson finally made the switch, with the news being delivered in a carefully worded press release.