Phil Is Back While Junior Jumps

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 23, 2007
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If you thought getting a few swing tips from Butch Harmon would set you back, it’s nothing compared to what he can get now following Phil Mickelson’s victory at the Players Championship. Since the pair hooked up, Lefty has grabbed two third-place finishes and one victory. Talk about a boon for business. Not since Harmon helped Tiger Woods win eight majors has he been a hotter commodity.

Mickelson had a win and a second this year under longtime swing coach Rick Smith, but his play was erratic and his world ranking fell one spot behind a struggling Jim Furyk. It seems that Harmon’s biggest job wasn’t physical, but mental. Butch didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, just straighten it a bit and help the second-best player in the world shake the baggage he’s been carrying since the U.S. Open.

No swing change is easy. Woods spent a year battling the adjustments made by Hank Haney, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Mickelson - though leading nearly from start to finish - hit just 30 of 56 fairways. The mechanics will take time, but the confidence has returned.

After so many successful years with Smith, Mickelson found himself stuck in a position where things simply were not getting better, and he couldn’t seem to shake it. After his disaster at Winged Foot, Mickelson limped through the rest of the season before shutting it down early. The question coming into this season was could he come back from the disappointment and embarrassment of the U.S. Open? It’s taken a bit, but the answer is a resounding yes.

The change was evident on Sawgrass’most infamous hole. At the par-3 17th, where in windy conditions 50 golfers found the water, Mickelson was anything but his sometime alter ego Roy McAvoy and was content to simply play the hole to par. Granted, being in the lead from day one helped, but his brilliant short game makes it tempting to attack even the pin on the most tricky of holes. He stayed away from temptation and walked away with the next best thing to a major.

While Lefty still has work to do with the driver, Harmon did what Smith could not: ease Mickelson’s mind. It probably had nothing to do with Smith, either. Sometimes change is needed for the sake of change. No matter how talented the athlete, continued frustration will eat away at the physical game, and it seems like that, more than any real technical problem, was at the heart of Mickelson’s problems.

Mickelson did not defend his AT&T title last week because of a schedule change, and with Tiger likely to miss the British open and other tournaments because of the birth of his first child, this could be a banner year for a sometime banana-hooking lefthander. If he has the year he is capable of, golf may finally get the challenger to Tiger that it so desperately needs.

A quick change in direction. It’s surprising when a fairly expected move still surprises. Short of Teresa Earnhardt moving to Siberia, stepson Dale Jr. was going elsewhere even with a reported majority control of Dale Earnhardt Inc. on the table. A stipulation he apparently wanted. Then again, Teresa didn’t help matters in December when she told the Wall Street Journal that DEI’s biggest breadwinner and the sport’s largest attraction had to decide if he wanted to be a driver or a celebrity. Junior countered that his feeling for his stepmother hasn’t changed since he first met her at the age of 6. And you thought there was some dysfunction in the Cinderella household.

There is no question that Dale Jr. will be alright. DEI, on the other hand, could be in for a rough ride. One concern about the move, fan reaction, was answered when sales of No. 8 gear rose 107 percent following his announcement. While a bidding war is expected for Junior’s services most likely among Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing, DEI will need to land someone big to support sophomore Martin Truex and rookie Paul Menard. Roush Fenway Racing has the money but is tied in with Ford, and it would be surprising for Junior to leave Chevy.

Whatever happens, this is sure to be the most talked about off season in NASCAR history.

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