In tennis, the saying goes, “Never change a winning game plan. Always change a losing game plan.”
Granted, this is harder to do in golf. In tennis, you have one racquet (or, if you’re a pro, half a dozen racquets strung exactly the same way), while in golf you have a 14-club limit. If you have started out, as so many golfers started out last week’s U.S. Open, planning to drive the ball in the fairway — knowing how important that is at the diabolically difficult Winged Foot West Course — and then find, during competition, that you cannot do that, Plan B may not be available to you.
Unless you have planned for the possibility of a Plan B, you will not have a 1- or 2-iron or some kind of driving iron in the bag. Your next longest club to your driver, other than a 3- or 4-wood (and these might not be finding the fairway either), might be a 3-iron, or even a 4-iron. The United States Golf Association sets up U.S. Open courses — it’s right in their handbook — to make golfers hit driver.
But you still don’t have to. Even on the longest of par 4s, this time measuring just over 500 yards, a modern top-notch male golfer can hit a 2-iron 270 yards. That leaves 230. On the more usual 450-470-yard par 4s, a 270-yard drive — in the fairway — leaves you 170-200 yards in. Modern golfers hit everything farther than 20 years ago. Those distances are often covered with a 6- or 7-iron. You can hit the middle of a green with those clubs, and then you can putt. Granted, the greens are diabolical, too, but they’re better than the bunkers or the rough.
DURING THE TOURNAMENT, broadcaster Johnny Miller marveled at golfers continuing to bomb their drivers into the rough. The NBC research department brought up a statistic. Twenty-five years ago, some 70 percent of the PGA tour hit 70 percent of their fairways. Today, the top golfers have forgotten about that kind of accuracy, and hit about half their fairways. Why? Because they can get within 100 yards, and, within 100 yards, the rough doesn’t matter much.
At an ordinary tour event. At a U.S. Open, with angular fairways like those at Winged Foot, with heavy rough, it makes a great deal of difference.
You can’t blame Phil Mickelson alone, though he collapsed in spectacular fashion, making a double bogey with a wild drive on the 72nd hole of the tournament, when, with one-shot lead, he could have put a 3-iron in the fairway, and at least tied for a playoff. Virtually every other golfer on the course in the later groups did the same thing Mickelson did.
In these modern times, one question really puzzles me. Make that two.
Callaway will do anything for Phil Mickelson. Cleveland will do anything for Vijay Singh. Why not have the company work up some kind of 11- or 12-degree driving iron specifically for the U.S. Open, for accuracy?
Second question: Mickelson works with short game guru Dave Pelz, who has conducted exhaustive statistical analyses of tour players. Pelz has found that tour players get the ball down in two shots from 100 yards far more frequently than they do from 40 yards. In an interview earlier this week, Pelz claimed that Mickelson was different. It’s evident he wasn’t. So why didn’t Mickelson — with Pelz’s advice — play the percentages?
STILL IT COMES DOWN TO DECISION-MAKING. The sixth hole was an unusually short par 4, just over 300 yards. Every player in the final groups tried to drive that hole. Mickelson tried to drive it every day, and made one birdie in four tries.
The simplest of golfing fundamentals would have yielded more birdies than that. Hit a 5-iron 185-200 yards. Hit a wedge to within six feet. Hole about half the putts.
Nobody did it.
Well, it’s not just me. Mickelson, in his post-match press conference, called himself “an idiot.”
If he can take any consolation, he isn’t the only one.