Why Phil Mickelson Needs a Strong Showing at 2014 Valero Texas Open

Richard LeivenbergContributor IIIMarch 26, 2014

Phil Mickelson watches his tee shot as he takes part in a pro-am at the Valero Texas Open, Wednesday, March 26, 2014, in San Antonio. Mickelson is straying from his usual schedule and playing in the Valero Texas Open for the first time in 22 years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

Phil Mickelson must try to get back to his winning ways at the Valero Texas Open or he will be looking at a steep uphill lie when he comes to Augusta for the Masters in April.

In order to give himself a shot at his fourth green jacket, Phil has to resurrect his shotmaking and putting and figure out a way to put the ball in play off the tee consistently.  Quite simply, he needs to gain some much-needed steam if he wants to make a run at the first major of the year.

This will be no small feat, but if anyone can make a turnaround, it is Phil, who has made a career out of bouncing back from adversity.

Still, it is an uphill battle that will require a top-notch showing at both the Valero and the Shell Houston, which will come a week later, where he won in 2011.

Mickelson finished 2013 in the 10th spot in Top 10 finishes.  Yet he has not finished in the Top 10 this season.  In his last two events, he has finished tied for 16th at the Trump National Doral and missed the cut at the Honda Classic.

It might be convenient to just say that age has caught up with him, but the 43-year-old had one of his best year’s as a pro in 2013 by winning his first Open Championship and the Waste Management Open, coming in second place at the U.S. Open (the sixth time as a runner-up) and finishing fourth in FedEx Cup points.

Phil needs to regain some of the magic that brought him the Open Championship last year.
Phil needs to regain some of the magic that brought him the Open Championship last year.Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Today, he may be ranked fifth in the world golf rankings, but he is No. 91 on the FedEx Cup board.

So, while the world ponders Tiger Woods’ future, what in the world is up with Phil?

Anyone who watched Phil come from behind to win the Open Championship last year knows he’s still got game.  In fact, he may be golf’s greatest gamer.  

Sometimes his go-for-it course play has worked against him, as it did in the PGA Championship last summer when he seemed to play much of the second round in the woods.  While laying up is not in Phil’s golfing vocabulary, he will definitely have to play smarter if he is to make a good showing at Valero.

One thing in his favor is his health. Phil appears to be plenty strong after tweaking his back earlier this season at Abu Dhabi.  Unlike Tiger, Phil has been injury-free most of his career.  He skipped Torrey Pines but quickly returned to Phoenix where he had won a year ago.  History may end up telling us that it was Phil’s big-dog body type that was more conducive to a long career than Tiger’s muscular build.  

With more than 40 players currently whacking their tee shots over 295 yards on average, Phil, at a paltry 282 yards in driving, may never have the edge in distance that once carried him.  With that in mind, he will have to improve his shotmaking and course management while in Texas.

Nor is driving accuracy a strong suit for Phil, who is currently hitting only 57 percent of his fairways, placing him in the 123rd spot among the pros.  That is well behind Zach Johnson, who hits 73 percent of the fairways. Johnson should be a favorite at both Valero, which he has won twice, and the Masters, which he won in 2007.

Phil needs to stay out of the woods.
Phil needs to stay out of the woods.Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Both of those categories must be improved by Phil who has fiddled with his equipment over the years in order to find the best method of keeping the ball in the fairway off the tee.  Most notably, he added what he called his Callaway "Phrankenwood," which essentially is like an old-style 2-wood providing both length and accuracy for his oft-errant drives. 

If statistics are important, then Phil has a long way to go as he is nowhere near the Top 10 in any of the key categories.  Last year, he was No. 1 in birdies and No. 6 in strokes gained—putting.  This season, he is 43rd and 63rd, respectively.

In preparation for Augusta, he will have to at least improve his approaches to the green so he can have a chance on its super-slick greens.

There is little question that professional golf is in a transition.  The veteran standard bearers like Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Lee Westwood are being usurped by young emerging stars.  This season, we have seen Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott give up leads and, surprisingly, wins to Russell Henley and Matt Every.  Meanwhile, Jimmy Walker has won three times, and Patrick Reed has won twice.

Bubba Watson and Johnson are the only veteran players who have won in 2013.

A view of Phil’s scorecards this season shows a steady but lackluster group of performances. 

Phil needs to put together at least two solid rounds below par at Valero in order to be back in the running. Yet for a champion like Phil, winning Valero may be the only thing on his mind.

Remember, he won the Scottish Open just days before taking his first Open Championship last year.  Wouldn't it be something if he was able to recreate that dramatic victory with a win or two in Texas?