Shafted: Phil Mickelson fights the USGA

Phil Mickelson watches the flight of his drive off the 10th tee of the Timuquana Country Club on Friday in the first round of the Constellation Furyk & Friends.Phil
Phil Mickelson watches the flight of his drive off the 10th tee of the Timuquana Country Club on Friday in the first round of the Constellation Furyk & Friends.Phil /

Phil Mickelson is at the center of the battle with USGA and R&A officials as both bodies adopt a new rule that sets driver length limits at 46-inches.

The good news is that the rule only applies to professionals. Don’t take your long driver to the garage and saw it off if you are a regular amateur golfer.

Although, I’d point out that a driver that is longer than 46 inches may be why you gained 10 yards in length but added 50 yards to your lateral dispersion.

Regardless, most players will not be affected by the new rule. But Phil Mickelson isn’t most golfers. And boy is he hot about it.

Mickelson won the 2021 PGA Championship with a 47.5 inch driver. That’s how a 50+ year old golfer hits bombs. While Phil is in great shape, physics tend to be a great equalizer. Longer lever, longer drives.

Like his aggressive swing, Phil didn’t hold back on his thoughts on the new rule going into effect in 2022.

Let’s stipulate this, no one has to swing any harder than they want to. If you are swinging any club so hard that you are risking injury, that’s on you, not the club. Distance is a privilege, not a right.

Did Mickelson winning the PGA and DeChambeau (who uses a 48-inch driver) mashing 400-yard drives create interest in golf? Sure. But those are anecdotal increments compared with the grassroots growth of the game.

Of course, we can disagree about this. If anything, Mickelson is as mad about how the rule was adopted as he is about the rule itself.

The larger question Phil is fighting is entirely valid. Not everyone, even Pros, can hit a 48-inch driver. Most amateurs shouldn’t even think about it. It’s significantly harder to control than a 45-inch driver. And for every Pro that hits a driver longer than 46-inches, there are more that play a driver less than 46-inches.

So the issue is more personal for Phil and I get that. He’s worked hard to be able to bomb it with a long driver shaft. It’s unquestionably a skill that most other players don’t have or haven’t committed to acquiring.

Let’s get this straight, too. I really don’t like defending the USGA. Like the NCAA in college athletics, the USGA feels very corporate, often nonsensical, and at times tone-deaf to its constituents.

Honestly, like so many governing bodies in sports, money and greed have corrupted what should have been a simple mission – define the rules, promote the game, and avoid the spotlight.

But that’s another article.

The bottom line is this – there needs to be clear rules. Setting equipment standards should not be controversial. But in defense of Phil, I’ll add this to his argument.

Why 46-inches?

Why not 47-inches? What is the science or math that got the USGA to 46-inches? History? Nope. Drivers have been getting longer for a few decades now. Back in the days of steel-shafted drivers, most were around 43-inches.

I see how Phil feels like this was personal. Frankly, it was. The USGA saw a 51-year old blast drives past players half his age and win a Major. It shook them.

That may be the cruelest cut of all. Mickelson, more than DeChambeau, is most responsible for making the long driver controversial.

DeChambeau created a stir with his long drives. His win at Winged Foot sent ripples through the Tour and forced players to re-evaluate their length off the tee. Some tried to chase Bryson. Rory McIlroy actually ruined his swing over it.

What they discovered was that Bryson was a freak. They quickly found it wasn’t simply about bulking up and getting a longer shaft on the driver. It took Bryson tearing down his swing, changing his body, and committing thousands of hours to rebuild a swing specifically designed to crush drives.

Bryson will be affected by the new rule, but I’ll bet he’s still one of the longest on Tour after the change.

Mickelson is the one who will be much more penalized by the rule than Bryson or anyone else. For that reason, I see why he’s hopping mad.

I suspect no rule change or addition will ever be met with universal approval. That’s life. Phil should be commended for standing up for players rights – even if he’s doing it to primarily benefit himself.

There are entire industries built on products and services to make aging men feel young again. I’m the same age as Phil, so I get that junk in my inbox all day, too.

Golf is no different. Hybrid irons, knee and arm braces, performance supplements, and age-focused fitness routines are all sold as ways to recapture your younger, better game.

The long shaft is now relegated to that territory. For most amateurs it will be a fool’s errand to play a driver longer than 46-inches. But you’ll see them.

And that may be Phil’s legacy on this particular issue. He fought the good fight for the old guard.

He should smile when he sees amateurs with drivers sticking a foot out of their bags. Even in this losing battle, he gave us what he always does – entertainment, something to think about, and the knowledge that older golfers won’t go down without a fight.

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