Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open dawned as Phil Mickelson’s day. He had a six-shot lead, the love engendered by the hometown boy and two worthy chasers in Brandt Snedeker and Padraig Harrington.
I figured that it would be a good time to find another threesome that wouldn’t produce the monster crowds you can’t move about in as easily.
I found my escape in the Justin Leonard, William McGirt and Ben Crane group. Leonard, as he struggles to return to the upper echelons of the game, McGirt, who barely made the top 125 in 2011 and then $1.2 million in 2012, and Crane, the zany “Golf Boys” viral video producer and recovering slow player.
McGirt played the best until a fluke triple bogey on 18 turned a 4-under round into a plain vanilla 1-under when he hooked his drive into the lake. He and Leonard discussed whether the ball ever crossed the margin of the hazard for some minutes. Finally McGirt, choosing the high road, determined that there was no way to know, teed it up and hit it again. It was a shame because it was his first bad drive of the day.
After he came out of the scoring trailer, he had a stunned look of disappointment on his face. And his face was a brighter shade of pink.
I saw an opportunity to explore his transformation over the last year, his highly competent play on Sunday and to see how he handles adversity and disappointment. But when I asked him if he had the tolerance for a brief interview, he honestly said no. Fair enough.
Leonard was still swapping golf stuff and personal stuff in and out of his golf bag, so I walked over to get clarification on what had happened on the tee. He said that McGirt had done the right thing in handling it the way he did, because ultimately it was up to him…inferring that he could have gone the other way, but had a shadow hanging over his decision. He admired McGirt having handled the situation with such integrity.
So I asked Leonard if he had some time for a quick interview. He paused, said he had a plane to catch, but he could take a few minutes.
I began by recapping his putting woes; I had never seen so many good putts just miss. The NBC lady and I agreed that it was like he was under some kind of weird curse.
“I was watching your play today. I followed you all the way around. Very impressive tee to green. The putts — it’s just — they were all good putts. They just didn’t go in.”
Yeah. My speed was a little off. I didn’t quite — I needed to be a little more aggressive today. And honestly, I think today with the cloud cover they were a little…
…a touch sticky, and I never adjusted to it. Yeah, and disappointed in the score I shot [1-under 70] because as well as I drove the ball and hit my irons — but, you know, I didn’t hit a lot of them close. I had a lot of twenty-footers today. And if you make a couple of those in the first few holes, all of a sudden it opens things up. It didn’t happen.
It was almost like a cruel hoax all day long. Because, every single one of them — and none of them really ever hit the hole — they were all just right there.
Yeah, none of them really hit the hole until the one at 16 [from 5 yards off the green]. Yeah, I played solid, I would loved to have gotten more out of it today, but I’ve played good here in this first month. Not great, but good and certainly have a couple things I can work on. But I gotta lot of stuff I can build on.
So how are you feeling about getting back to where you were? [A $500,000 2nd place check at Disney in 2011 masked an otherwise poor year and 2012 was so bad he lost his card and is playing on a one-time special exemption as a Top 25 player in career earnings.]
Pretty good. I’m certainly headed in the right direction. Everything for four weeks except for the long day, the long Sunday that we had last week [at Torrey Pines that took Monday to finish], I’ve hit the ball well, it’s been very consistent and, you know, I’d certainly like to make a few more putts. But over all, I’m pleased. Not really with the result, but with the way that I’ve played.
Your swing looked sharp. It really looked nice and tight and it was going where you were aiming.
Yeah, I drove the ball well today and did a lot of good things.
So what’s been responsible for this prolonged slump here? Is it the putting?
A little bit and I think just mentally getting in my own way and at times trying too hard.
Well, could you say more about that? I write a daily golf mastery blog from the point of view of a former Monday qualifier on the Champions Tour, so I know what you guys are going through out there. So can you talk about how you get in your way and what you’re doing to get out of your way?
I can get out there and start grinding a little too much. And just start thinking about things a little too much.
Lose your freedom?
Yeah. And so that’s something I’ve been working on is trying to play more freely and loose and play more aggressive.
And so what are you doing to do that, to get more aggressive — it’s easy to say that, you know?
It is easy to say it, and it starts when I’m at home practicing. And not trying to be so perfect. And certain days, you just kind of take what’s available and not try to do any more than that.
But being perfect is part of your personality. I mean just look at you [laughing and indicating his impeccable attire and bearing].
[Laughing] Well it is and it was more so in the past. But I think I just realized that there’s just no need to be perfect.
Because you can’t be.
You can’t be. So let’s just be good. Let’s be consistent. It’s easier. Mentally it’s less taxing. And, you know, I also really worked hard this off-season. I didn’t take many days off.
What did you do?
Just a lot of practice at home. Playing holes here and there.
Hitting balls mostly?
No, I would get out and play some. I wanted to be ready to go. I didn’t want to come into the year trying to “find” something. I wanted to ready to go.
Did you feel like you did?
Yeah, yeah. I feel like I’ve come into this year in better shape and more ready to play. And, again, I’m not satisfied or happy with the results, but I’m very encouraged by a lot of the things I’m doing on the golf course.
Well, given what I saw today, you have a right to be.
Okay, thank you. Thanks.
Those putts really look good. They’ll start falling for you soon.
Thanks, I appreciate it. Thank you.
Thank you, Justin, I appreciate your taking the time.
Absolutely, thank you.
And with that, he politely begged off from the pleas from the rope line for autographs and began the race to the airport.