How far does Phil drive the ball?
The Things People Say About Phil Mickelson
During Phil Mickelson’s first round at the 2023 Masters, KVV hears plenty of mixed emotions, but also sees plenty of vintage Mickelson.
- Published 4/7/2023
- By Kevin Van Valkenburg
AUGUSTA — Phil Mickelson showed up this week to play the Masters for the first time in two years and proceeded to behave like he was attending a funeral.
He seemed somber. Every interaction was muted. For the first time in 30 years of playing in this tournament, he had almost nothing to say in the build-up. Fuzzy Zoeller and Tommy Aaron told the Augusta Chronicle that Mickelson was essentially silent during the Champions Dinner, quietly eating his meal but not engaging anyone in conversation.
For someone who radiated joy every time he drove through the gates of Augusta National — including the time in 2019 when he recorded a video on his phone as he drove down Magnolia Lane and declared he was going to “hit bombs” all weekend — it felt strange to see him behave so differently at a place so familiar. However you feel about Mickelson’s decision to join LIV Golf and the relationships it strained, there was something sad about seeing him like this.
When he walked to the first tee just after noon on Thursday, the reaction from the patrons could best be described as subdued. He offered a few courtesy nods of appreciation, then a limp thumbs up, but his gallery felt thinner than it had in at least two decades. He still had a smattering of support, but nothing like it once was.
“He looks weird,” said one person in the crowd, leaning toward a friend.
“Yeah I think it’s a health thing,” the friend replied. “Isn’t he in those commercials for osteoporosis? Or wait, that’s not it. I think it’s that thing you get when you type too much. Carpal tunnel.”
“He looks good,” whispered an older patron as Mickelson teed up his ball. “He’s just lost that pot belly he used to have.”
It’s easy to feel like you’re in a bubble sometimes in golf media, where opinions and hot takes tend to blend together and bounce off one another on Twitter or podcasts, so I decided to spend the day in Mickelson’s gallery watching him navigate one of his favorite playgrounds while listening to the chatter of the people in attendance.
Over the course of the day, I heard a broad spectrum of opinions. I also watched Mickelson come alive for the first time in months.
“Hey Phil!” one man yelled as Mickelson made his way up the first fairway. “We have the same handicap!”
“Yeah, and it’s gambling,” his buddy replied, sending their friend group into a fit of laughter.
“You’re not allowed to yell at LIV players,” another gentleman whispered, elbowing his pal as they watched Mickelson fly his approach long of No. 1. “They’re real serious about that.”
At times, the commentary was friendly. And at times it didn’t make much logical sense.
“Phil we missed you this year in Jacksonville, hope you can defend your title next year!” one patron yells as Mickelson made his way to the second hole. I couldn’t tell if he meant the PGA Championship, which was played at Southern Hills in Tulsa, or The Players Championship, an event Mickelson won in 2007 but will almost certainly never appear in again, but the sentiment seemed sincere. Mickelson smiled and nodded as he walked by.
“What is that logo on his hat?” a woman asked her husband. “Is that the Hy Flyers logo? I really like it.”
On No. 2, when he hooked his drive well into the woods on the right, someone from well behind him called out just loud enough to be heard: “I bet LIV wants their money back!” which drew a few snickers. But when Mickelson ventured outside the ropes to find his ball, it turned into a priceless opportunity to pinch in close and listen to Mickelson debate with his caddie and brother, Tim, about how he might escape from jail.
“Oh shit, he’s gonna hit driver!” whispered someone as Mickelson pulled off his headcover.
It was a classic Mickelson gamble, deciding to hit a driver off the pine straw on the second hole of the tournament, but perhaps to no one’s surprise he (kind of) pulled it off, clipping a branch but also blasting the ball 223 yards across the fairway and into the woods on the left side of No. 2. From there the ball found a cart path and trickled to a stop eventually, a position Mickelson somehow made birdie from after a delicate pitch from across the green.
“That was insane!” one man recounted to his buddy as Mickelson loped after his ball. “As soon as I saw driver come out, the crowd just parted like the Red Sea! He sees all the angles!”
“I bet Phil could hit a flop shot with a 3 wood,” an older gentleman said, as Mickelson sized up his approach.
“I bet he thinks he could for sure,” joked his friend.
As his round went on, Mickelson seemed to draw energy from the circus. He was back in his element. He kept his head down early on, but as the day went on, he frequently responded with a limp thumbs up to those pleading for acknowledgment.
“I think he looks fit,” a woman mentioned to her friend on the 7th hole.
“I think he looks awful,” said a man nearby.
“Nah, he looks good,” she said. “I wish I could look that good.”
Mickelson’s round found its true spark on the 8th hole. After a good drive in the middle of the fairway, he chose to hit driver off the deck for the second time, smashing the kind of shot he once described as a hellacious seed toward the green. It was such a sensational shot, it was a fun reminder that, for all his blunders, few players have ever made golf on a razor’s edge as fun to watch. His shot chased onto the front of the green and ran a foot by the hole before it stopped on the back fringe to set up his second birdie.
“Salty,” Mickelson said when asked after the round what that shot felt like. “Really salty.”
Mickelson had been curt with reporters early in the week. But as he recounted some of his shots after the round, a flicker of the old Playful Phil couldn’t resist returning. When I nudged him into sharing more about the difficulty of that shot into No. 8, he proceeded to deliver a master class on how to attack that hole.
“That’s a really hard second shot,” Mickelson said, breaking into a grin for one of the first times all week in front of the media. “I came out here a week or two ago and spent — you know, hit ten balls, went and picked them up, hit ten balls again. I was trying different clubs for that shot. Because if you’ve got an uphill lie, you’re going to pull draw. That’s the tendency, right? So if you’re a right-handed player, you’re going to have that uphill lie, and it’s going to shape it right up that green, and the draw’s going to run. If I’m hitting a cut, that’s a lot harder shot because, if I pull it right to the right pins, I’m not getting that up and down. I’m going to have a 50, 60-footer, and I’m fighting for par. If I come out and miss it left, it’s a potential double over there with the trees and the flowers.
“And I’ve seen it all. I’ve been there. I can tell you. But if I pull that shot off, all of a sudden I’ve got birdie and almost made eagle. So that was a really hard shot that I ended up pulling off, and it allowed me to make a 4 when, if I didn’t pull it off, there’s no way I’m going to make a 4.”
The rest of the round was just as eventful. It was quintessential Mickelson. He birdied No. 9, but then made a double bogey from the middle of the fairway on No. 11. He hit an incredible shot into No. 12 to make a bounce-back birdie, then birdied both the 13th and 15th holes. In between, he hit an 8-iron right-handed after his drive landed near a tree. He hit a decent shot but still made bogey.
“I had like a leaf that I practice swung, and I was like, all right, if I can hit this leaf, I can hit the ball,” Mickelson said, explaining his thinking behind the decision. “If you ever watched Dodgeball, if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. I thought, if I can hit this leaf, I can hit a ball. I hit the leaf and did it twice, and I’m like, all right, I can do it. Let’s go do it.”
As he made his way around the back 9, I heard plenty of cheers but also endless debates about LIV and whether Mickelson had made the right decision.
“You could buy a yacht with the bag he got,” said one man as they watched Mickelson bogey 16.
“You could buy four or five yachts,” his friend replied.
When Mickelson sprayed his drive left of 17, another discussion broke out about his fitness as he sized up his approach.
“There is less of him for me to not like,” one man mumbled. “I don’t like the rest either.”
“Money motivates everybody,” one man said to his wife as they watched Mickelson stare down a par putt. “For $100 million, I’d do pretty much anything. Hell, I’d push you down the stairs for $100 million.”
“You would, huh?” she said (mostly) laughing.
“Yeah, it ain’t like there is anybody out here recording me,” he said.
When the round ended, a wild and memorable 71, Mickelson handed out fist bumps along the rope line as he made his way into scoring, then reemerged several minutes later and hugged his wife, Amy, who had walked much of the round in the gallery. It was the first time in several years Amy Mickelson had attended a tournament. The couple embraced and chatted for a few seconds before Mickelson made his way toward reporters. He’d recently updated his Twitter profile to include the word “Husband” before the words “Lefty” and “LIV. Golfer.,” something that wasn’t there back in January.
“I was actually enjoying it and appreciative of the opportunity to be here,” Mickelson said when asked about the emotion of his round. “There was a lot of talk a year ago guys wouldn’t be able to be here, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play and compete here and be a part of it.”
With his mood seemingly chipper, I couldn’t resist asking one of the questions on everyone’s mind: What led to the decision to lose so much weight?
“I needed something different, and I’m having a lot of fun having three teammates and having a different energy and a fun environment, and I want to play and compete at that level,” he said.
Sure, I said, but you’re skinnier than you’ve ever been.
“Thank you,” Mickelson said. “I stopped eating food, that was a big help.”
After a few more questions, Mickelson thanked the media and slipped away. He looked different, certainly, but for the first time in a long time, he sounded like his old self.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Phil Mickelson: Why he’s still chasing distance
Phil Mickelson is extremely focused on improving his game and extending his distance to maintain his competitive edge.
Some people think that Bryson DeChambeau is the mad-scientist of the PGA Tour, but when you get down to it, there’s another PGA Tour pro who is also focused on the technical aspects of the sport. That’s Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson turns 50 in June, and while he’s undecided which Tour he will play after that big birthday, he does know that he can’t be competitive on the PGA Tour without the ability to hit the ball a long way. Distance translates backward to several other factors, but mainly clubhead speed and the appropriate ball for the driver being used.
“There is a point, in my opinion, of diminishing return at about 182 mile an hour ball speed, which is going to equate to about 122 mile an hour clubhead speed,” he said to media at the AT&T National Pro-Am .
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Interestingly, swinging faster than 122 miles per hour, for him, doesn’t help. “You start going faster than that, you start losing a little bit of control, and it almost has a diminishing return and that’s why, you’ll find all the top guys right in that area,” he added. When he started this most recent distance effort, a couple of years ago, he said he only had a ball speed of 170 miles per hour. That didn’t equate to enough distance. “It took me probably a year before I overnight had five, six miles an hour more clubhead speed. You know, I was struggling to swing 115,” he said. “Now it’s easily over 120. If I need to get to 122, 123, I can at will.” He used strength training and some swing aids to get him there, including something called Super Speed Golf and Speed Sticks. Mickelson has studied his numbers with the driver and says that in 1993-1994, he was 25th in driving distance with an average of 269 yards. He said in 2003, he was still 25th with an average of 299 yards. “I’m averaging just over 300, I don’t know, 303, 307, something like that,” he said about his current stats. “That is equating to just training and swinging the club faster. I’ve always been right around 25th in distance, give or take, and I’m back to that area.” There were other factors that allowed him to hit farther, too. The modern golf ball, which is solid core versus the wound ball had a lot to do with it in the early 2000s, he said. “The longer guys with more speed, the stronger guys, would swing that wound ball and it would just over spin. It would spin 34-, 3,500 RPM,” he explained, adding that the ball then had a lot of drag due to the spin. Drag slows things down, like a ball flying through the air, which is not what you want. The solid core balls, he noted, were able to reduce the spin, and they increased the launch. If you want to see some technospeak, try this excerpt from a Titleist patent.
“The same core can be encased within a plurality of intermediate layers having either increasing hardness or decreasing hardness to provide selective golf balls for either low swing speed players or advanced players.”
Or in real words, they changed the inside layers of the ball to different substances that, in theory, benefit high speed swingers of the golf club in one instance and low speed swing swingers of the club in another. But back to Mickelson’s mad scientist material. “When we (he means golf manufacturers) created that solid core technology, we were able to reduce the spin and increase the launch and also perimeter weight the ball, so that made a big difference too because it wasn’t curving as much, and that allowed guys to hit it the same speed off the face, but get rid of 12- to 1,500 RPM’s of spin and reduce the drag and get the ball to fly right through the air,” he said. Basically, the ball manufacturers make the outside layer of the ball from of a material that is denser than the inside ones. Think of a small scoop of lead compared to a same-sized scoop of marshmallow. If both are the same size scoop, the lead one is going to be heavier. You know that. It just makes sense based on your experience with lead and marshmallows. So, back to the golf ball, the outer (lead) layer is denser, heavier, than the inside (marshmallow) layer, and that affects ball flight. It’s somebody’s physics experiment and has to have a boatload of math. We’ll trust them on that! Now that he’s gained the distance he needed, Mickelson has to massage other areas of his game. “Maybe my iron play hasn’t been as great, my putting hasn’t been as great, maybe my accuracy could be better. Well, that’s not maybe, that could be,” he added and said he was addressing those. “But if I didn’t have the speed to start with, it wouldn’t even give me a fair chance.” He means a fair chance against guys like Brooks Koepka or Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson. And while length isn’t everything, and while guys like Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk, who are shorter hitters, have been prolific winners over their careers, it does make it easier. “You can win on the PGA Tour not hitting the ball long. You can out-putt, you can out-strike, you can have great weeks and win golf tournaments without being the longest guy or without overpowering a golf course, but you cannot dominate the sport without speed,” he noted. “You might be able to do it for a year or two, but you can’t out-perform everyone consistently without clubhead speed.” Clubhead speed allows golfers, like Mickelson, to put more spin on the ball when they want to. It allows them to hit longer. It also allows them to hit the ball high, which means they can on the green more softly. “It allows you to do more with a golf ball than if you don’t have speed, and the best players in the world are going to have to have speed,” he concluded. Mickelson has played three events since January 1. His PGA Tour stats for the entire 2020 season, which started in October, have him at a driving average of 305 yards which is 40th place. He needs to get to an average of 309 yards to be 25th, which he said is his average for his career.
The Average PGA Drive
The average driving distance among golfers in the PGA varies from event to event and from year to year, but typically stays within a few yards of the same number. Players such as J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson are perennially among the longest hitters on tour.
Average PGA Tour Players’ Driving Distance
In 2020, the average PGA Tour (male golfers) driving distance reached an all-time high of 296.4 yards, the longest average driving distance ever. In 2021, the average driving distance was 295.3 yards, second to only 2020 as the longest average driving distance in PGA Tour history.
This driving distance from professional golfers is far greater than the average driving distance for amateur golfers of all levels, who average about 215 yards. According to Golf.com, golfers with a handicap between 13 and 20 average about 200 yards of driving.
LPGA Tour Average Driver Distance
In 2021, the average LPGA Tour pro’s (female golfers) driving distance was 256 yards.
In 2023, Rory McIlroy leads all golfers on the PGA Tour, hitting the average golf ball 326.60 yards per drive on the golf course. Here is the rest of the top 5:
- Brandon Matthews: 320.40 yards
- Cameron Young: 315.80 yards
- Cameron Champ: 314.30 yards
- Jon Rahm: 314.10 yards
Having the fastest swing speed and winning the long drive contest does not necessarily mean a player is going to win the PGA Championship every year. In fact, several notable players are not among the top 20 in average driving distance, yet have won major tournaments and/or contend on a regular basis.
Phil Mickelson averaged 299.8 yards per drive in 2011, while Adam Scott was just behind at 299.8. Sergio Garcia averaged 299.2 and Ernie Els averaged 288.1 yards. Tiger Woods averaged 298 yards per drive in 2000, arguably the best season of his career. Here are some other notable golfers and their average driving distance in 2023
- Bryson DeChambeau (2021): 323.7 yards
- Luke List: 308.80 yards
- Scottie Scheffler: 308.70 yards
- Gary Woodland: 274.20 yards
- Justin Thomas: 305.50 yards
- Jordan Spieth: 302.70 yards
- Trey Mullinax: 309.20 yards
Although average drive and carry distance statistics haven’t been meticulously kept throughout golf’s history, Jack Nicklaus routinely hit drives well over 300 yards and was always among the tour’s longest drivers. When Nicklaus played, golf clubs and balls weren’t as technologically advanced as in today’s game.
A player’s driving distance is partly at the mercy of environmental considerations such as wind. On a windy day, gusts can carry a player’s ball away from the fairway- regardless of if you’re a golf driving professional or just an average golfer.
Playing a short, safer shot to avoid the ball getting caught in the wind is a safer move in a situation like this. Depending on the layout of the hole, some players don’t always hit the ball as far as they’re able. Strategically, it is often advantageous to lay up.