RICK AND I STILL FRIENDS – ‘LEFTY’

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What has been rumoured to be happening for some time is now official – Phil Mickelson’s new coach is Tiger Woods’ old coach Butch Harmon.

What has been rumoured to be happening for some time is now official – Phil Mickelson’s new coach is Tiger Woods’ old coach Butch Harmon.
Mickelson returns to action for the first time since his disappointing defence of the Masters at this week’s EDS Byron Nelson Championship in Texas and he does so after taking what he calls “a difficult decision”.
The world number four, only 24th at Augusta, has switched to Harmon from long-time coach Rick Smith.
“Butch is one of the very best teachers in the world,” Mickelson said on his website.
“He’s helped two players rise to number one in the game (Greg Norman was the other) and I’m fortunate that he has agreed to spend time working with me on my game, particularly on my driving.
“We’ve been friends for years and I’m eager to explore new avenues and implement new ideas with him.
“Rick Smith is also one of the world’s top teachers. He has worked with some of the best players in the game and his teaching was very instrumental in most of my 30 PGA Tour wins, especially my three major wins in the last three years.
“But the player-teacher dynamic has always been just a fraction of our relationship. We have common business interests, our families are best of friends and we’ll continue together in all of those areas, including golf course design.
“This has been a difficult decision for me. I feel that now is the time to go in a new direction with Butch Harmon on my long game.
“I went to Rick Smith as a friend and asked for his understanding of this decision and he’s been very supportive of it. No-one could ask for a more true or loyal friend.”
Smith commented: “I think it is a good time for Phil to get a different perspective.
“Butch has been a friend of mine for years and we have a mutual respect for one another. In the end, I truly want what is best for Phil’s success.”
Mickelson’s presence this week certainly helps the tournament.
The sponsors reckon they have “one of the most prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour”, but that has not stopped eight of the world’s top 10 staying away.
Their absence comes in spite of the fact that it is the first staging of the tournament since Nelson’s death at the age of 94 last September and a moment’s silence will be held on Saturday, complete with flyover by Marine F18 jets.
Mickelson and Vijay Singh are the only members of the game’s elite playing, the rest not being attracted even by a custom-made Orange County Choppers motorcycle being awarded to the winner in addition to a cheque for over £550,000.
What is wrong with them? The bike has chrome wheel spokes individually commemorating each of Nelson’s 11 consecutive tournament victories in 1945, elements of wood and steel to reflect the clubs of his era – and radio frequency identification technology that will allow only the rider to arm and disarm the security system.
It sounds just the sort of thing to give Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald added incentive and, given the relative weakness of the field, they will start amongst the favourites.
Inevitably, the decision of Woods not to be part of the action has attracted most attention locally – and for some it is clearly more than they can stomach.
An article headlined “Shame on Tiger for snubbing Lord Byron” has appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper, with columnist Gil Lebreton saying he is aghast.
He wrote: “In the three previous Nelson tournaments at least six top 10 players showed up to play an homage-rendering, they said, that showed their respect for Lord Byron and for all he’d done for their game. Just two years ago the five highest-ranked golfers in the world came.
“It would have been a classy, respectful gesture on the professionals’ part, one would think, to participate in the first tournament since the great Nelson’s death.
“Instead, Woods, Jim Furyk, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Geoff Ogilvy (Henrik Stenson and Padraig Harrington, the two Europeans in the current top 10, are spared being named) have informed tournament officials that they won’t be coming.
“Woods, in particular, was one of Byron’s favourites, and Tiger long professed that the feeling was mutual.
“As much as Woods’ extraordinary drawing power has boosted golf, his random, infrequent attendance habits threaten to hurt the sport.
“There are two professional golf tours in the world, the sporadic tournaments that Tiger Woods plays in, and the growing list of all the others.
“Shame on him for not coming, even if it’s just for one last time to tell Byron’s widow, Peggy, and the Nelson tourney people that he’s sorry.”
Woods’ last appearance was, of course, the Masters and with a first baby now little more than two months away his schedule for the summer is up in the air somewhat. Even his defence of the Open championship has a question mark over it.
There is also the new FedEx Cup play-off series which follows. Assuming all is well at home, that means he is likely to be more busy in August and September than is normally the case.
That, at least, is certainly what the US Tour hierarchy are hoping. So far in 2007 the world number one has made only five appearances on their circuit – the Buick Invitational, Accenture match play, Arnold Palmer Invitational and CA world championship prior to Augusta.
The last two weeks the winners have been Boo Weekley and Nick Watney and while it is great for them to have broken their tour ducks – and booked places in next year’s Masters under the reintroduced exemption category – it certainly does not do much to boost television ratings.
Mickelson could at least get things going in the right direction again as far as that is concerned.
The sponsors, one suspects, will be delighted if he does just that and rides away on that spanking new motorcycle.
From Mark Garrod, PA Sport Golf Correspondent

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