You get the feeling, hearing golfing great Phil Mickelson speak, that unlike many former college golfers I’ve known, Mickelson might have actually attended some of his classes back at Arizona State. Had he not been so proficient with the sticks, he might have ended up using a pointer at a chalk board to explain something mathematical. It’s easy to see why he meshes so well with short-game guru Dave Pelz, who was a one-time NASA scientist before applying numbers and physics to golf and making a serious living as an instructor on the greens.
Mickelson was this year’s guest for the Jack Stephens Charitable Golf Tournament at Warren Stephens’ Alotian Golf Club on Tuesday. As private as Alotian is, and with the tournament also being a private one-day show drawing well-to-do businessmen wanting the chance to play a hole or two with Mickelson, the invited media and the 60 children from four Arkansas organizations (15 children each from First Tee groups from Little Rock and Fort Smith, Episcopal Collegiate School, and the Little Rock Air Force Base) are the lucky ones to have been included in the crowd. Last year, the guest was Tiger Woods, who turned up sickly but still managed an impressive exhibition.
While Tiger is well known for his friendly demeanor in these settings, Mickelson seems even more accommodating. Both did the group pics with the kids. Tiger didn’t do an interview with the media; Mickelson answered everything from the press except why he dropped his swing guru Rick Smith for Butch Harmon, letting his recent press release speak for itself. Interestingly, Tiger rode to greatness in 2000 behind Harmon’s tutelage before dumping him a couple of years back to go with Hank Haney. Rick Smith and Harmon reportedly had a tiff back in Harmon’s days with Tiger when Harmon caught Smith talking with his student. Now, Harmon has hooked up with Tiger’s chief rival, the one man with all the tools to challenge for No. 1.
None of that mattered Tuesday. Mickelson gave a lesson in chipping around the No. 18 green, which was set up like a putting green, and also convinced the onlookers that the game is easier when you apply one swing to a variety of shots, rather than a variety of different swings to different situations. After a strange round recently when half my shots around the green were bladed, I was ready Tuesday to find a putting green — they weren’t going to let me on Alotian’s — to try Phil’s hinge-and-hold chipping method.
But what was most amazing was Mickelson’s breakdown of the numbers, and why he spends 60 to 70 percent of his practice time on the short game. To spend much time on long irons, he said, would waste his or any pro’s time, because improving the PGA average low-end distance of 45 feet from the cup to 30 feet from the cup for the better players still doesn’t change much in the percentages of making a putt from those distances. But improving a chipping distance from 5 feet to 3 feet every time is enormous, especially when a change in one stroke a round means the difference in thousands of dollars on the pro tour.
Mickelson was impressed with Arkansas as a golf state with its trees and mountains, seemed astounded during the exhibition at the speed of Alotian’s 18th green, and said he was happy for Arkadelphia’s Ken Duke finishing second last week in New Orleans while hopeful that John Daly would work out his troubles and return to good play. “He brings so much to the table,” Mickelson said.
One of the corporate sponsors of the event was CDI Contractors, but the co-owner of the company, Bill Clark, has been ill and was unable to attend. On a personal note, I met Bill Clark through covering golf tournaments when he would play in Pine Bluff, and I was a cub reporter on the sports staff at the paper there. It didn’t matter what line of business he was in — in fact, I accidentally referred to him as a lawyer in one golf story, which no doubt humored his course rival, Ken Johnson — just that he played golf and was exceedingly accommodating. That was also in a day that newspapers still covered the local country club four-balls as extensively as the national press follows the Masters.
After several near-misses in the Pine Bluff Country Club Four-Ball, Clark, and his partner (I believe it was Jack Ramer that year), finally broke through. His smile was as big as Mickelson’s in 2004 when he finally broke through and won the Masters for his first “major” win. It was fitting that his company would help bring in Mickelson to Little Rock, but it would have been even more so if Clark could have been there.