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Built To Last

IT’S TIME TO RECOGNIZE THE GENIUS OF PHIL’S SWING

Guy Yocom

THROUGHOUT Phil Mickelson’s 28 years as a pro, swing gurus, stats nerds and armchair psychologists have all taken stabs at the reasons for his brilliance. It has been a losing battle. The Paleo diet, martial-arts classes and amazing short game aren’t everything, and the puzzle of his career is clearly more complex. At age 49 on June 16, with 44 PGA Tour wins and five majors, Mickelson has flashes where he plays as well as he ever has. When he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, he suddenly was not a fading adornment to the pro-golf scene, but a major factor again. He also became one of the best examples of longevity in tour history. Lately, the “What will Phil do next?” meme has taken on special meaning, shifting from his whimsical off-course antics to stunning oncourse possibilities. What are the reasons for that longevity? And what made him great in the first place? Could it be that his full swing, generally regarded as too long, loose and inconsistent, is an underrated cornerstone of a game built to last? And is there something the rest of us can learn from Phil’s way of going? We put those questions to the three teachers—Butch Harmon, Rick Smith and Dean Reinmuth—who collectively guided him for 27 years. Other respected instructors, including Sean Foley and the legendary Bob Toski, gave their thoughts, too.

A consensus emerged on several aspects of Phil’s full swing, as well as the intangibles of his outlook—how he “sees the game,” as Foley puts it. They have reenergized Mickelson as he ventures further into the dicey zone of middle age. We left diet and physical conditioning out of the equation, as Phil’s habits in those areas are constantly in flux. We’re interested in what happens when Phil is on the golf course.

THE SWING: “LONG AND FREE, GO ON A SPREE”

DEAN REINMUTH recalls his first lessons with Mickelson in 1984, when Phil was just shy of his 14th birthday. “I hadn’t seen flexibility in a swing like that before,” he says. “At the top, the shaft of Phil’s club would sometimes hit him in the neck, and that’s with his lead arm perfectly straight. His arm joints were so loose, he could buckle his arms backward at the elbows, as some young gymnasts can do. It created some obvious challenges with control, but I was really hesitant about changing the basics of it. He could hit the ball so high and far, and his timing was so good. What you see today, I was seeing 35 years ago.”

The career-long swing template was in place—lengthy and loose, sometimes errant, but a gift. He won three NCAA Championships, one U.S. Amateur and nine times on tour with Reinmuth until parting ways in 1996. Mickelson chose not to have a primary instructor until Rick Smith signed on from 2001 through 2006.

“I didn’t want to change the length of Phil’s swing, either,” Smith says. “We worked on adding control, by posting him up more on his front leg, which helped him ‘cover’ the ball more through impact. That really helped his iron game. Don’t forget, his swing is long with the irons, too. But that long swing, even with the driver, is an asset. It gives him time to gather at the top, to transition smoothly. The violence that comes with shortened swings and their sudden changes of direction is one way players get hurt. Phil’s long swing is body-friendly and a reason he’s playing well today.”

Mickelson won three of his five major championships on Smith’s watch, but by early 2007 he was 36 and thinking more long term. Always a natural athlete, Mickelson had begun his forays into dedicated fitness training—including martial arts—and left Smith for Butch Harmon.

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July 2019

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