- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Phil Mickelson gained ground on World No. 1 Tiger Woods this week without taking a single swing.

Confirming a compelling subplot that has been rumored for several months, Lefty announced earlier this week he was ditching longtime instructor Rick Smith for golf’s most notable swing guru: former Woods mentor Butch Harmon.

Long acknowledged by insiders and players as the game’s preeminent teacher, the 63-year-old Harmon began providing Mickelson feedback on the range earlier this season at the Accenture World Match Play Championship and will now completely take over Lefty’s tutelage from Smith.

“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,” Mickelson said in a statement released Monday.

Though the 36-year-old Mickelson is coming off a three-year Slam spurt that saw him collect the first three major titles of his career (the 2004 and 2006 Masters and the 2005 PGA Championship), his accuracy off the tee has increasingly waned under Smith, leaving him currently ranked 131st on tour in fairways hit.

Harmon is unmatched in his understanding of swing mechanics. And unlike other notable PGA Tour instructors Smith, David Leadbetter or Hank Haney (Tiger’s current teacher), Harmon has a virtually flawless technical track record. Harmon coached Greg Norman to the game’s pinnacle in the early 1990s, oversaw Woods’ meteoric rise and career-defining season (2000) and recently has helped star pupil Adam Scott ascend to the world’s No. 3 ranking.

Woods and Harmon split just before the 2002 PGA Championship, ostensibly because the uber-private Woods was uncomfortable with Harmon’s easy manner and candor with the media and the Las Vegas-based instructor’s preference to work with a portfolio of players instead of just Woods.

Exclusivity issues could also play a role with Mickelson, as even in the pair’s honeymoon period, Harmon has maintained that his primary pupil will remain Scott.

“I’m not Rick Smith. I’m not going to spend 24/7 time with Phil. When he needs help, I’ll be there with him,” Harmon told the Golf Channel’s Brian Hewitt earlier this week. “If you’re asking me who’s at the top of the totem pole, Adam Scott is my main client, and I’ve explained that to Phil.”

Like Woods, Mickelson is intensely private and incredibly demanding. But if Phil is willing to share Harmon with the likes of Scott, Fred Couples and Stewart Cink, there’s little doubt Butch can cure his issues with the big stick.

Expect to see the end of Mickelson’s dual-driver mania and a significant softening of his extreme right-to-left ball flight, changes that should begin to take shape at this week’s Byron Nelson Classic. The territorial Woods is likely to be slightly rankled by Mickelson’s latest move, putting yet another strain on the relationship between the game’s most popular players.

But if Mickelson’s switch to Harmon accomplishes nothing more obvious than providing Phil with another set of eyes and golf’s most coveted fount of swing feedback, count Inside Write among those who think Lefty is making the right decision.

Tiger effect

When Tiger first announced last month that he would be hosting his new PGA Tour event in the area (AT&T; National), perhaps the Beltway’s only groan belonged to Teo Sodeman, the tournament director for the Melwood Prince George’s County Open.

The inaugural Nationwide Tour event, which will take place May 21-27 at the CC at Woodmore, went from being the only tour event in town to certain second-class status the moment Tiger unveiled his plans to team up with Congressional Country Club and AT&T; for a limited-field, FedEx Cup spectacular at Old Blue (July 2-8).

But given the rash of recent splendor from former Nationwide Tour graduates, perhaps local golf fans should reevaluate the stature of the Melwood PGC Open. Starting with Zach Johnson’s rise from obscurity at Augusta National, recent Nationwide Tour grads have won the last three PGA Tour events — Boo Weekley (Heritage) and Nick Watney (Zurich Classic) following Johnson’s Masters’ lead.

“We’ve had a lot of questions about the AT&T; National, but I know we can be successful in this market,” Nationwide Tour president Bill Calfee said at the Melwood PGC Open’s recent media day. “We’ve been called the minor leagues, but this tour stands on its own legs. The line between the PGA and Nationwide Tours is blurring with each passing year. These guys aren’t developing their games; they have the game.”

And no event boasts a worthier title sponsor than Melwood, a not-for-profit organization based in Upper Marlboro that has helped train, place and assist more than 2,100 area employees with developmental disabilities.

“It’s a huge commitment for Melwood, because our resources are precious,” said newly elected Melwood president and CEO Janice Frey-Angel, whose organization will either make up the shortfall or enjoy the net profits from the event. “It’s a risk. But we’re hoping this event will raise awareness as much as money. Our hope is that we can locate a lead sponsor for the future to ease some of that financial pressure.”

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