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Barber: Phil Mickelson fails to make cut at Safeway Open

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NAPA — Phil Mickelson had a very bad first round Thursday here at the Safeway Open, but he left the course that day convinced he was on the cusp of a personal rebirth.

“If it were a few months ago, I would let it get to me a lot more than I did today,” Mickelson said to reporters that afternoon, standing just off the putting green at Silverado Resort. “I actually have a lot more confidence and energy and excitement to play, and my attitude’s just a lot better. So I’ll come out tomorrow, I’m going to shoot a good round. I’ll shoot 6, 7 under par tomorrow, I really believe that.”

Mickelson was much improved Friday. But not to the degree he had predicted. He shot 3 under for the day, finishing the first two rounds even. It was enough to provide the veteran some optimism, but not enough to make the cut. Mickelson would be heading home as a few dozen less-celebrated golfers prepared for the weekend.

It wasn’t the start Mickelson had envisioned to the 2019-20 PGA Tour season. In fact, it bore a close resemblance to his 2018-19, a campaign he was hoping to put behind him as quickly as possible.

Mickelson is in a protracted slump. There’s no way around it.

Think back to the Masters tournament last April. Mickelson played well at Augusta and finished 6 under par, a score that put him behind just 17 other men. This is what Mickelson’s results looked like in the 10 tournaments that followed the Masters: missed the cut, tied for 71st, missed the cut, tied for 52nd, missed the cut, missed the cut, missed the cut, finished 57th, tied for 71st, tied for 48th. He finished below par at just one of those events — the last one, the BMW Championship in Medina, Illinois.

“I’m not happy with the way the last six months have gone, probably the worst six months of my career, and I’m determined to fix it,” Mickelson said here Wednesday, after playing in the same foursome as Stephen Curry in the Pro-Am.

Indeed, Mickelson seems intent on reinventing himself, an ambitious project for someone who will turn 50 next June.

His strategy is holistic. It kicked into gear in July, when he announced at the British Open that he was putting himself through a weight-loss program. Mickelson is no fatty, but he has always been a little wide. He looked positively svelte in Napa, though, and told reporters he has lost as much as 30 pounds.

“My energy level is a lot higher,” Mickelson said. “Towards the end of the round, I feel good now. I don’t feel as tired and I’m able to practice a little bit harder and not get as worn out. So all of those things lead me to being very optimistic about the upcoming year.”

It isn’t just diet. Mickelson has endeavored to change his mental state.

“I wasn’t mentally sharp or focused the last five or six months and it led to some very poor play,” he said. “I’m taking a little bit of a different route this time. I’m not going to put as many hours in, and I’m going to try to be more focused on the time I do put in and enjoy it a little more. … I’m physically able to do it, my game feels sharp, the touch is there, the elements are there and yet I haven’t been pulling it out, but I’m determined to turn that around.”

Mickelson clearly was enjoying himself here. He has an easy way with fans and media — polite and engaging without hamming it up. When I walked alongside his team Wednesday, I heard Mickelson quietly ask each of his non-celebrity teammates (executives for Albertsons and Chevron), “How did you meet your wife?” It was a sweet touch.

Mickelson, starting his 29th year on the Tour, has even become an unlikely social media sensation. He has started recording cheeky interviews and posting them on Twitter with the hashtag #PhiresidewithPhil. His most recent was with comic writer and director Larry David.

“It’s very, very Phil,” golfer Justin Thomas said Wednesday. “It made me laugh because at the beginning of it, my buddies are like, ‘It’s not him.’ I’m like, ‘Trust me, it’s him.’ If you read the stuff he says back and watch everything, it’s nobody but Phil.”

All of this paints a portrait of an athlete making a concerted effort to be healthy in mind, body and spirit as he approaches the late stages of his career. So far, though, it has not translated to success.

The frustrating end to Mickelson’s 2019 season continued in his first tournament of the new one. Playing the par-5 fifth hole Thursday, he knocked the ball out of bounds twice and flailed to a 9. He has played more than 38,000 holes in PGA events, and this was the fourth-highest single-hole score of his career. The 75 he shot that day was his worst round ever in Napa.

Can Mickelson get it back? The last time he finished the money standings in the top 10 was 2013. He was fourth that year behind Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker. Woods fell into a cycle of injuries after that, and Mickelson was a logical pick to succeed him as the PGA’s premier golfer. It hasn’t happened. Mickelson did not win a tournament from 2014 through 2017. Last season he ranked 39th in earnings.

The truth is, despite his popularity and estimable track record — Mickelson has won 44 PGA events and is one of just 12 men to have captured three of the four majors — he is now a middle-of-the-pack pro golfer.

Despite being eliminated Friday, Mickelson remained optimistic.

“Even though I didn’t hit a lot of fairways, the misses were much smaller,” he said after shooting 69. “The little low driver to get in play is a shot I haven’t had in a long time, and I’m able to do that now and the miss is much smaller. … I wasn’t sharp, I hadn’t played in six weeks. I look at it as very simply if I play the par 5s the way I should, I’m in contention.”

Mickelson has always been known as an erratic driver. For years, he made up for it with daring and crafty approach shots to get to the green. His strokes-gained numbers at the Safeway Open showed that he was putting well, but that his approaches (130th among the 144 entries) were as bad as his drives (tied for 132nd.)

That doesn’t bode well for the reinvention. Mickelson is doing everything right as an athlete. But he continues to make a lot of mistakes on the course, and you have to wonder if the lefty will ever again be counted among golf’s elite.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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