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Phil Mickelson’s plan of attack yields results on first day of U.S. Open

Confidence in his short game and scrambling ability paid off for Phil Mickelson in the 1st round of the 2014 U. S. Open. Shots like this, out of a fairway bunker on the 12th hole, didn’t faze him as he posted an even par round on the day.
Confidence in his short game and scrambling ability paid off for Phil Mickelson in the 1st round of the 2014 U. S. Open. Shots like this, out of a fairway bunker on the 12th hole, didn’t faze him as he posted an even par round on the day.
©USGA/John Mummert

The first day of the 2014 United States Open, slated to run June 12 to June 15, 2014, at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina is in the books. The results posted by two of the highest-profile players in the game, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, on the first day of the tournament, have shed some light on the effectiveness of the very different tactics each was using on the championship course, the venerable Pinehurst #2.

Relatively hard, fast conditions, resulting in tough-to-hold greens, were expected to prevail for the championship, and the deep, lush turf-based rough that is usually to be found off of the fairways at a U.S. Open venue was absent, replaced with sandy, natural waste areas in the 2011 remodel/redesign of the course. This departure from the usual playing conditions engendered very different reactions from Watson and Mickelson.

After his Wednesday practice round, long-hitting lefty Bubba Watson divulged his plans to keep his bright-pink driver in the bag and “lay back” (sic) to be more certain of staying in the fairways, and out of the waste areas, even at the risk of longer approach shots into the notorious “turtleback” greens on the Donald Ross-designed course. Watson based this strategy on the presumption that balls hit into the sandy areas outside the fairways would result in “iffy” lies, making approach shots more difficult

Another prominent lefthander, Phil Mickelson, the man in the field with the highest burden of expectations for this event, took the opposite approach. In remarks to the media on Wednesday, Mickelson revealed that he planned to play the course “fairly aggressively”, making liberal use of the driver to get as close to the greens as possible. He said he felt that the waste areas were playable, though luck would sometimes be involved, but the severity of the design and condition of the greens dictated the desirability of getting as close to them as possible, relying on short-game skills to get close to the flag.

So how did the two fare with their diametrically-opposed philosophies? By the barest, most stripped-down measure, that of score, Phil had the right idea. At the end of play on the first day of the tournament, Mickelson was one of twenty players tied for 16th place at even-par 70, while Watson was one of a dozen who were six shots, and 106 places, further back, at six-over 76.

A slightly more detailed look at the basic statistics for the two men brings the picture into sharper focus. Mickelson posted an average driving distance of 308 yards, Watson 300; Mickelson hit nine of fourteen fairways, Watson hit eight; Mickelson hit thirteen greens in regulation, Watson nine; and Mickelson took 31 putts for the round, Watson 32.

It’s interesting to note that Bubba, despite keeping the driver in the bag (for the most part – he used it “…five or six times…”, he said in a post-round interview), still banged it out there. A 300-yard average is a low number for him, but he trailed Mickelson, who had the driver out at every opportunity, by a mere eight yards. Both men had very similar numbers for fairways hit, with Mickelson edging Watson by one, nine to eight, and their putting numbers were similar, too, at 31 for Mickelson, 32 for Watson.

The statistic that falls between “Fairways Hit” and “Putts” is the one that tells the tale, though. The disparity in “Greens in Regulation”, where Mickelson was nearly 50% more successful, is where the scoring difference lies. Whether because of a difference in attitude or ability, successfully bridging the gap between the tee ball and putting is what made most of the difference in their respective rounds.

Attitude may have played a bigger part in it than many people would credit. Watson decided on his strategy of lying back off the tee specifically to avoid hitting out of “iffy” lies in the waste areas, whereas Mickelson expressed confidence that he could get close to the green from those same lies, and as the numbers show, Mickelson was nearly 50% better in this part of the game than Watson was.

Put bluntly, going into the contest Watson was anticipating defeat, while Mickelson was looking for ways to be successful.

Comparing what Watson said in his post-round interview today: “It’s a tough golf course. The golf course is better than me right now.” to Mickelson’s reaction to today’s round: “I'm never upset, anything off of par, it’s usually a good score. It’s a good start. I didn’t hurt myself any.”, it appears that both their pre-round attitudes were, to an extent, self-fulfilling prophecies.

Watson anticipated having a hard time from fairway to green – and not only did he, he has as good as admitted that the golf course got the better of him. Mickelson, on the other hand, while admitting in his post-round interview that his putting wasn’t where he wanted it to be, has seen his confidence in his “farther is better” strategy vindicated, and is heading into the second round feeling that he has a chance to get after this course, and win this tournament.

Reports of overnight rain in the area bode well for slower and more receptive greens for Friday’s second round, but the disparity in the attitudes displayed by these two players, both of whose names were widely bandied about as possible winners this week, may well mean the difference between playing the weekend and possibly hoisting the United States Open Trophy on Sunday evening.