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Everyone’s Talking About Tiger, But Phil Mickelson Is Playing The Best Golf Of His Career

The entirety of the golf-watching internet has spent a couple of recent Sundays engrossed in a 40-something golfer whose career peaked a decade ago. But while Tiger Woods has consumed all of the oxygen in the room, the game’s other 40-something blast from the past, Phil Mickelson, is quietly playing some of the best golf of his professional career.

That Mickelson, at the well-seasoned age of 47, is entirely overlooked thanks to his enigmatic rival is almost too fitting; it’s been happening for two decades.

“He’s always one-upped me in my career, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out this week and won,” Mickelson said of Woods earlier this month. “Just to one-up me again.”

Lefty stands at No. 18 in the World Golf Rankings, where the average age of the players ahead of him is 30.7. He is No. 3 in the FedExCup standings, where the average age of the players ahead of him is 28. He has logged five top-10 finishes in eight starts this season; only 31-year-old Brian Harman, who has played in 10 events, has more.

At the WGC-Mexico Championship in early March, Mickelson beat Justin Thomas — the No. 2 golfer in the world, who is young enough to be Mickelson’s son — in a playoff. It was Mickelson’s 43rd professional win and his first since taking the British Open at Muirfield in 2013.

It was also a continuation of peak performance this season from the avid gamesman. Entering this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Mickelson has finished no worse than tied for sixth at four consecutive tournaments. With an average finish of 3.5 over his past four appearances, Mickelson is currently riding the best four-event stretch of his entire career.1 He’s placed in the top 15 in six of the eight tournaments this year, putting his average tournament finish this season on par with the best seasons of his career.

The underlying numbers support Mickelson’s 2018 renaissance. Using the strokes gained statistic — which evaluates every golfer by comparing his performance on each incremental shot in a round to the average — Mickelson is having the best season of his career on record, albeit in the early going. He is averaging +2.33 strokes gained per round, which is higher than his best full-season mark since at least 2004, the first year for which this data is available.

What’s gotten into Phil?

How Phil Mickelson has fared in terms of strokes gained, 2004 season through March 20, 2018

Average Strokes Gained
Season Measured Rounds Off the Tee Approach Around the Green Putting TOTAL
2004 54 +0.60 +0.60 +0.22 -0.09 +1.32
2005 50 +0.34 +0.57 +0.36 +0.26 +1.53
2006 47 +0.57 +0.98 +0.14 +0.27 +1.96
2007 52 +0.33 +0.61 +0.50 +0.16 +1.60
2008 59 +0.40 +0.84 +0.36 +0.21 +1.82
2009 48 +0.31 +0.27 +0.38 -0.15 +0.82
2010 57 +0.19 +0.74 +0.23 -0.15 +1.00
2011 58 +0.14 +0.90 +0.33 -0.19 +1.18
2012 60 -0.10 +0.57 +0.40 +0.56 +1.42
2013 57 +0.02 +0.49 +0.26 +0.66 +1.44
2014 50 +0.20 +0.17 +0.27 +0.23 +0.87
2015 55 +0.07 +0.02 +0.23 +0.26 +0.58
2016 59 -0.15 +0.73 +0.22 +0.57 +1.36
2017 69 -0.06 +0.55 +0.22 +0.34 +1.05
2018 22 -0.10 +1.14 +0.21 +1.08 +2.33

2018 season is ongoing. Total average strokes gained may not add up exactly because of rounding.

Source: PGA Tour

As many a grandfather has implored over the years, golf is a sport people can play virtually their entire lives. But performance obviously diminishes over time — especially at the highest level the sport has to offer. There’s a senior tour for a reason, after all.

So how, then, is Mickelson turning back the clock this season as the old-timer in a sea of youths?

“There’s a number of areas in my game that, if I look back 10, 15 years ago, I feel like I’m significantly better,” Mickelson said earlier this month on the Dan Patrick Show. “Certainly, I’ve gotten a ton better at putting.”

This is very true. Only Jason Day (1.39) is averaging more strokes gained with the putter than Mickelson (1.08), who leads the tour in the percentage of holes with only one putt (48.8 percent), the average number of putts per round (27), the percentage of holes with a birdie or better (41.3 percent)2 and overall putting average (1.5 putts per hole).

While his work off the tee has been nothing special (-0.10 strokes gained), Mickelson has had little difficulty getting his ball in position to attack the flagstick, ranking third in strokes gained on shots approaching the green (1.14).

And yet, Mickelson’s odds to win the Masters sit at 20-to-1, below those of Woods, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Jon Rahm, who have combined to produce eight top-10 finishes and two wins this season. Mickelson has nearly matched those marks by himself. Given his record of work and meteoric ascension this season, golf’s most notorious active gambler would perhaps do well to bet on himself.

Mickelson has publicly said one of his goals is to qualify for a 12th Ryder Cup and to help the U.S. team win on foreign soil. His recent win gives him a great chance of accomplishing it. Another goal is to eclipse 50 career wins on tour.

“I don’t know (when I’ll get to 50),” Mickelson told reporters after his latest win. “Seven more wins and I’ll be there. I don’t have the month or the time, but I will get there.”

Footnotes

  1. Excluding unofficial events, match play and team events.

  2. On holes in which the player hit the green in regulation.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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