Time passes, things change, golfers get old and their careers begin fading away.
Except, apparently, for Phil Mickelson.
The 47-year-old Mickelson’s playoff win at the WGC-Mexico Championship over Justin Thomas, a man 23 years his junior, marked the latest punctuation mark in a career that refuses to wind down: Mickelson has now collected four US PGA Tour wins since turning 40, including the 2013 British Open. He should’ve won more, too: he was historically unlucky to come up against Henrik Stenson in such incredible form in 2016, and he’s clocked six other Major top-threes since turning 40. His latest win puts him in solid position to qualify automatically for another Ryder Cup team, something he’s done every event since 1995.
How does Mickelson do it? To answer that question fully, let’s first back up a bit: when fans talk about ageing golfers’ games, the problem they’re usually identifying is about swing speed. Players get older and don’t swing as fast, which means they’re not hitting the ball as far relative to their peers. It’s an inevitability in golf, and Phil Mickelson is no different. Lefty has been slowly losing swing speed as he crossed the 40 barrier: his 122mph swing speed in 2007 was down to 114mph in 2017, and a 115mph average so far this season speaks to the larger trend.
This presents a particular problem for golfers because it means they need to lean on other areas of their game that weren’t a priority for them before. They may start having more mid-to-long irons into greens rather than mid-to-short irons, for example, or they may need to rely on good scrambling than in the past.
This is showing up in Phil Mickelson’s stats, too: he ranked seventh, fourth and third in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green in 2005, 2006 and 2007, respectively, compared to 64th, 27th and 33rd in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
So how has Mickelson conquered this problem? Because while his swing speed has fallen at a pretty average rate, he was swinging so fast to begin with that, even though he’s not swinging as fast as before, he’s still swinging pretty fast in absolute terms.
Here’s what I mean: Mickelson swing speed loss dropped him from 29th in Driving Distance in 2007 to 89th in 2017. From above average to average, basically. Ernie Els, who lost almost exactly the same amount of swing speed over that time (7.9mph compared to Phil’s 7.8), but had a slower swing to begin with (117mph to Mickelson’s 122mph), meant he plummeted from 31st in Driving Distance in 2007 to 155th over the same time. Or, in other words, from above average to way below average.
None of this is a coincidence, of course.
Mickelson’s power derives from his flexibility rather than brute strength, a trait NFL quarterback Tom Brady says is the key reason behind his own longevity. He worked with Butch Harmon and tweaked his swing to embrace that strength, too, shortening it before lengthening it again to stave off the effects of time (hence that weird drop-off in the chart about 2008). His timeless short game, meanwhile, allows him to mitigate for losses elsewhere in his game. Add to that his forward-thinking approach to equipment, and the result is a golf game that has stood the test of time – and probably will for years to come.