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Mickelson & Watson: two lefties, two philosophies about how to play Pinehurst #2

This shot of the 16th hole of Pinehurst #2 shows the waste areas that players in the 114th U.S. Open will be facing instead of lush U.S. Open-style rough. This change in conditions has many pros rethinking their strategy for the tournament.
This shot of the 16th hole of Pinehurst #2 shows the waste areas that players in the 114th U.S. Open will be facing instead of lush U.S. Open-style rough. This change in conditions has many pros rethinking their strategy for the tournament.
©USGA/John Mummert

The two biggest-name lefthanders in the world of professional golf are both in the conversation when talk turns to the question of who will be the 2014 U.S. Open champion this week, but the Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson have espoused diametrically-opposed philosophies as to how to go about winning at Pinehurst when the 114th United States Open gets underway on June 12th, 2014. The firm, fast conditions, turtleback Donald Ross greens, and the replacement of 35 acres of Bermuda rough with natural waste areas by the Coore-Crenshaw retro-remodel have triggered a lot of speculation as to how the course will play, and engendered widely differing opinions as to how to play it.

Bubba plans to lie back off the tee, hit longer shots into the greens

Oddly enough, Bubba Watson, the long-hitting lefty who backed into his first Masters title three years ago, and was virtually handed his second earlier this year by a late-fading Jordan Spieth, is endorsing a conservative approach to Pinehurst #2. Yes, Bubba – he of the bright pink driver, the self-taught swing, the booming tee shots, and curve-it-even-when-you-don’t-have-to air game – has been telling the press that he is going to be lying back off the tee.

For me personally, […] it’s all about the tee shots,” Bubba said in a Tuesday press conference, “I’m going to try to lay farther back than normal, because it’s still iffy hitting in that – I don’t know what they call it, rough, dirt, sand, I don’t know what they’re calling it. But it’s going to be iffy, you don’t know what kind of lies you’re going to get. So I’m going to lay back and have a lot longer shots into the holes.

That’s an interesting approach to this course, in these conditions, and not only because it flies in the face of all we know about Bubba-from-Bagdad’s usual game. When asked why he was forsaking what has traditionally been the strength of his game, the Floridian replied:

Well, length is an advantage if you can hit fairways, but not too many guys are hitting it 330 and hitting every fairway.

I say hit fairways and then just go with a longer shot into these tough greens. Not saying it’s the right strategy, hopefully in four days I can tell you it was a great strategy. But that’s what I’m planning right now. Now if I make a few bogeys and doubles right quick I might switch to the driver.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of the wisdom of mid- to long-iron shots into the greens the players are going to be faced with at Pinehurst this week, the Bubba-logic behind this decision is typically obtuse. On the one hand, he has expressed doubt about being able to hit his second shots out of the waste areas effectively, on the other he has been saying that he is comfortable in these conditions because they are like the course he grew up on down in the Florid Panhandle:

[This] looks like the same golf course I grew up on, a lot of pine trees, sand everywhere. We don’t call it natural area, we call it not-very-good conditions where I grew up. So I’m used to hitting out of sand and hard pan with, again, we call it weeds where I grew up. So playing out of that stuff, I’m used to that, […] when I’m in there I’m actually comfortable. I’ve grown up playing golf that way.

So – he’s comfortable playing out of “weeds”, as he calls it, but he feels that his second shot will be “iffy” if he ends up there. To guard against the risk of ending up in the “weeds”, Watson plans to eschew the use of the driver – traditionally the strength of his game – to lie back and hit from the fairway, despite the fact that this approach virtually guarantees long- or or mid-iron approaches into fast, crowned greens with no more than 30% to 40% pinnable area.

Good luck with that, Bubba.

Mickelson plans to play aggressively off the tee, leave shorter shots into the greens

Taking the other approach is the top-rated lefty in the game, and the man with the most to gain from a win this week, Phil Mickelson. After capturing The Open Championship title in Scotland in 2013, and with three Masters titles and a PGA Championship to his credit, the U.S. Open title is the last major trophy missing from Mickelson’s mantelpiece. With six second-place finishes in the U.S. Open over the past 15 years, and ten Top-10 finishes dating back to 1995, a win in the U.S. Open is the tantalizing fruit that has eluded his grasp for two decades.

Attaining this, his most cherished goal, would also propel Mickelson into membership in a very exclusive club as one of six men who have at least one of each of the major professional championships to their credit, putting him on an equal footing with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Tiger Woods, and Gary Player.

Asked about his plan for the Open, Mickelson said, “The greens are so repellant that you need to get as close to them as possible. So I’ll be hitting a lot of drivers. I’ll be trying to play this golf course fairly aggressively.”

Mickelson went on to say, “I also found that you do need a little bit of luck, but the waste areas are playable. You can at least advance the ball up by the green nine times out of ten, then rely on your short game. So if you can get the ball closer to the green off the tee, and hit driver, I think it’s worth it.”

The wisdom of Mickelson’s approach seems obvious, and is, in fact, borne out by cold, hard facts. Analysis of ShotLink data gathered at PGA Tour events over the past decade has shown that the key to lower scores is to get as close to the hole as possible, in a playable lie, with every shot.

Dr. Mark Broadie, the Columbia University Business School professor who originated the “strokes gained putting” statistic for the PGA Tour, has applied the analysis behind that evaluation to shots from tee to green, and explains it in his recent book, Every Shot Counts: “…from 100 yards in the fairway, pros get up and down about 28% of the time. from 60 yards in the fairway it’s 36%, and from 30 yards it’s 53%. There are large potential savings from laying up closer to the hole.”

The “get-as-close-as-possible” strategy takes on even more importance on a course like Pinehurst #2 in U.S. Open nick. While the weather forecast has chances for rain which might soften the greens a bit and make them more receptive, the high-percentage outlook is that the players are going to be dealing with hard, fast greens with dangerous slopes and tabletop-sized target areas. Landing approach shots and keeping them on the greens is going to be difficult, and the farther back they try from, with longer clubs, the more difficult it is going to be.

Whose approach will be more successful, Bubba’s or Phil’s? Over the next four days we are going to find out – and it’s going to be a hell of a show.

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