Phil Mickelson: Working on “Focus”

There was a lot of good stuff that came out of the British Open media room at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on Tuesday. There was the discussion amongst various players about the level of talent on the Tour now, all in support of the question about whether we’ll have another first-time major winner this week. It’s been 15 in a row since Padraig Harrington won the 2008 British Open for the second time at Royal Birkdale.

But since I’m more interested in the details of personal mastery than the records they garner, I was more smitten by Phil Mickelson’s opening comments in his media room session:

Yeah, I was originally planning to come here early and do some practice, but I ended up going to Castle Stuart and playing the Scottish Open because I wasn’t really playing as well as I wanted to in some tournaments.

And it was really a great week.  It’s a wonderful golf course, Castle Stuart.  I felt like I got a lot of good work done.  I had a couple of good rounds there to give me direction on where I want my game to go.  So I’m looking forward to this week.

But this was such an exceptional deviation from his original family plans, it begged the question why?

You have always put your family before golf.  And last week was one exception when you really cut down your family vacation and went to play in Scotland.  What does that say about your career?  Are you concerned about something about your golf that you did that?

I think it says a lot about my wife and what a great lady and supportive lady that she is, that she realizes or she understands that when I need to spend a little bit more time playing, competing, practicing, that it was her idea as much as it was mine to add the Scottish Open.  I think it says a lot about how lucky I am to have such a great, supportive wife.

All of this highlights just how concerned Mickelson was about his recent form. Things had been perking along pretty well for him with a win at Pebble Beach and a P2 at Riviera. In early April he had a T4 in Houston and followed that with a T3 at the Masters. In late May, he had a T7 at the Byron Nelson and all together, won $2.8 million.

But then he withdrew from the Memorial after a first-round 79, finished T65 in the U.S. Open after a 76 and 78, and missed the cut at the Greenbriar when everyone else was eating the course alive.

With the British and the PGA Championship still ahead of him, it was time for a little remedial work.

Can you just expand a little bit on what clicked at Castle Stuart and maybe what that did do for you and how that decision looks for you now?

It didn’t feel that far off, but I just wasn’t holding my focus for all 18 holes.  I just wasn’t in a good, competitive frame of mind.  And adding that tournament has really helped get me in a much better frame now.  Certainly to take on a challenge like the British Open right here at Royal Lytham is a whole different test.  But at least I feel a little bit better about where I’m headed.

Why have you had trouble focusing for 18 holes, and what steps have you taken to try to correct that?

That’s a good question…I think over the course of 18 holes in a tournament and a competition with a challenging test of golf, it’s important to really hold your focus well each shot.  And my mind has been going a little bit in and out.

So I’ve just been trying to maintain my focus throughout each shot.  That’s all I’ve been working on.  And it’s been getting better.  It’s been getting better.

He threw a thrill into us at the Scottish Open when, after a first-round 73, he blazed up the leaderboard to T5 with two Phil-like rounds, 64, 65. But what he means by, “It’s been getting better,” does not mean that it’s done. He shot 74 in the final round and fell to T16. He was in good company with the likes of: Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington, Fredrik Jacobson and Martin Laird, all T16, but still a bit of a disappointment. We always want to be done with our changes on our timetables and not to be troubled with how long they really take.

He appeared very calm and self-assured in the media room. But he knows that the word “focus” is well understood to mean concentration. And he also knows that focus does not begin to do justice to the breadth of what it means to be completely absorbed in the moment, to be consumed by the moment to the exclusion of all else.

In high level golf, the only thing there is room for is the target, the shot to that target and holding that shot in your mind’s eye as you hit it. There is no room in any of that for swing thoughts, for thoughts about the outcome of your round, for thoughts about your fellow competitors, for thoughts about the gallery, the officials, the weather, the condition of the course.

Everything but the golf disappears. You are deep in the moment. There are no nerves because it isn’t part of the golf. Sometimes there is no sound and you are completely unaware of loud noises: car alarms, slamming Portalet doors, raucous crowd noise from the hospitality tents. There is only total, absorbing calm. It is an inspiring and enervating way to play the game.

But it can also take a lot out of you. Padraig Harrington played in the Scottish Open too, but he was sort of glad that he didn’t really get into contention:

I played nicely at the Scottish Open.  It wasn’t a very stressful week, which is — I always like to play the week before major tournaments.  And when I’m playing that event I want to win it, both — if you lead from Thursday through to Sunday at an event, that certainly drains your resources for the following week.

So last week I was pretty stress-free for the whole week.  I played nicely, which is what you want to do, but I didn’t put myself  — because I wasn’t in contention really, I didn’t put myself under too much stress.  So it was good preparation for this week.

Phil’s subdued assessment that it is “getting better” is probably an indication of just how far he knows he really has to go to be truly comfortable. But with the rounds of 64 and 65 at the Scottish, he surely has a pretty good taste of the game’s magic elixir: focus and all that is embodied in that word.

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