ARDMORE, Pa. — Yes, Phil Mickelson has the lead, thanks to a fortuitous birdie at the 17th. But it might have been more of a lead.
While most people focus on Mickelson’s lip outs or missed fairways, as Saturday afternoon became Saturday evening at Merion Golf Club, I wondered if Mickelson’s backspin, that shot golf fans love to see, could cost him the U.S. Open?
It’s tempting to use that shot on Merion’s greens which primarily slope from back to front. It’s a crowd pleaser—throw the ball beyond the pin onto slippery backboards with world-class spin and let it trickle back toward the hole.
It should provide an uphill putt, which is less risky on fast greens. But sometimes, it doesn’t quite work out. Sometimes, the trickle-back theory ends up with a ball that rolls back eight or 10 or 12 feet past the hole instead of cozying up to the pin. Then, the birdie opportunity becomes a par.
Greg Norman used to be the king of spinning the ball. He had more backup than Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. He achieved it because of the powerful way he delivered the club. Norman had enormous clubhead speed.
It was something most golfers, pros and amateurs alike, could only dream of creating. In his case, it often worked to his advantage. But on the ninth hole at Augusta in 1996, he spun the ball off the green and all the way back down to the fairway. It was the beginning of the slide.
Once, while doing instructional videos with Fred Couples for The Golf Show (which I owned and produced), I asked him why he did not spin the ball back. It was his answer that came to mind today watching Mickelson play.
What Couples said was that early in his career, he used to spin the ball a lot and used to back the ball up on greens. He said he made a change after doing that for a few years. He said the reason was that he knew how far he could hit a shot, but he did not know how far he could spin it back.
Think about it. These guys stand out in the fairway talking about how far to cover a bunker or how far to the front of the green and then how far to the pin. They talk in terms of exact yardages. Johnny Miller has said on telecasts in the past and has written it at his prime, he knew within a half a club how far he could hit it.
At a U.S. Open, that’s what you need—an exact yardage—not yardage with some undefined amount of backspin that you have to guess because you can’t predict it. Jack Nicklaus, in addition to knowing his yardages cold, had the added bonus of hitting a controlled fade most of his career.
A fade comes in softer than a draw. So at tournaments with fast greens, Nicklaus had the skill to hit to an exact yardage and the ability to land the ball softly. It’s a lethal combination at a major championship.
If you are a Mickelson fan, you know he’s not called "Phil the Thrill" for nothing. He lives for this stuff. He’s never played stress-free golf in his life. So keep your fingers crossed on Sunday and hope the backspin is not his undoing.
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America. Bissell produced and owns the rights to The Golf Show which aired in syndication for 10 years.