Is Phil Better—Or Just Thinner—in 2008?

Phil Mickelson has played well so far in 2008, winning at Riviera. He's already won more than $2 million this year, compared to $5.8 million from all of last year. He is #2 in Fedex Cup points.

Obviously he's lost weight and looks much trimmer.

But is he better than last year?

We measured his swing mechanics last year and at Riviera, and present here the ';new' Phil.

Phil at Address

Phil Mickelson at address 2007Phil Mickelson at address 2008
Address Spine Angle 2007                     Address Spine Angle 2008

Last year, Phil was already 8° outside of the tour norm in Spine Angle. Most pros bend their spine 25-30° forward at address. Phil's Spine Angle last year was 38°. This year his Spine Angle is 40°, a 5.2% increase. This doesn't seem like a lot, but it's 5.2% in the wrong direction, as we'll see next. But he is thinner, as you can see looking at his stomach.

At impact, Phil really ';stands up', sharply reducing his Spine Angle. He has to. He drops his hands quite a bit at address and then lets centrifugal force extend his arms and club on his downswing. If he did not ';stand up', his club would be 6-7' underground at impact. Going ';with the (centrifugal) force' during the downswing is a good thing — you don't want to pick a fight with centrifugal force because you will lose in the end.

Phil at Impact

Phil at impact 2007Phil at impact 2008
Impact Spine Angle 2007                    Impact Spine Angle 2008

Both this year and last year, Phil reduced his Spine Angle to 25° at impact. Last year, that was a change of 13° in Spine Angle between address and impact. But this year it's a change of 15°, an increase of 15% over last year. This means his alignment is actually 15% worse this year than last.

Imagine if the tolerances in your car suddenly increased by 15% in one year! The steering would be sloppy, the transmission would slip, the car would be slow to respond to commands, you would have less power from the engine, and smoke would billow out the back. The timing would be bad and your mileage would suffer.

Alignment of the spine during the swing is the main determinant of accuracy in golf (along with keeping your club on plane and squaring the club face at impact). The more constant your Spine Angle during your swing, the more accurately you can contact the ball with the center of the club face. As you make better contact, your accuracy improves.

You can compensate for poor alignment (as Phil does) with great hand-eye co-ordination. But this is like relying on your driving skills when racing a car with poor alignment. The car will tend to wander on the speedway and you'll have to constantly correct it with your hands. It can be done, but it's difficult to win races this way.

But this is not the end of Phil's woes.

Top of Phil's Backswing

There is also quite a change at the top of Phil's backswing this year — and not for the better. We have added a blue arrow to indicate where the problem is.

Phil's Backswing 2007Phil's Backswing 2008
Top of backswing 2007                           Top of backswing 2008

As you can see, Phil now locks his back leg at the top of his backswing. in 2008. Every club pro and all better club players know that you should not do this. So why does one of the best golfers in the world do it?

You can see the effect on Phil's hips. His left hip is now much higher than it was in 2007 -- another change in alignment for the worse.

In addition, if you lock your back knee at the top of your backswing, you have to then unlock it on your downswing. It's just one more thing that you have to get done in a very short period of time.

The main reason you want your back knee bent at the top of your backswing (apart from keeping your hips level) is that you rely on your back leg to drive your hips during your downswing. If the knee is locked, you cannot drive off that leg. It's effectively a wooden leg when locked. It's of no use to your golf swing in that position.

Most golfers who do lock or hyperextend their rear leg do it to increase their amount of hip rotation away from the ball. It's difficult to imagine that Phil has to do this. He's one of the most flexible golfers on tour.

But it may be that he has lost some flexibility in his hips. The problem may be that he has been lifting weights. It's all the rage in professional golf these days, because of Tiger's and Annika's success after bulking up.

Each muscle is composed of tens of thousands of individual fibers. Lifting weights increases muscle strength by tearing individual fibers within the muscles. When these fibers are torn, the body repairs them, making them bigger and stronger than before (just as repaired bone breaks are stronger than the bone around them and scars are thicker than the skin around them). The only symptom that tells golfers that they have torn muscle fibers is the soreness they feel the next day.

But something else happens during the repair process.

The body also creates scar tissue called microfibrosis. These microfibers are not small muscle fibers but rather small connective (scar) tissue fibers. The microfibers form inside the muscles, but also form in between the muscles, or rather in between the thin membranes of connective tissue that surround each muscle. Normally smooth, these membranes help the muscles to slide past each other, just a cartilage (another form of connective tissue) helps the bones to move within a joint.

By adhering together two adjacent membranes, this scar tissue helps to immobilize the area so that the muscles can heal from the tearing.

The problem is that the microfibers do not go away after the muscle fibers have healed. Because the membranes are no longer free to slide on each other (because they are stuck together by these microfibers), the muscles in the area can no longer stretch like they did before, and the golfer loses flexibility.

How many microfibers form and how much flexibility a golfer loses depends on genetics. Some golfers are unusual and do not form many microfibers. They are able to maintain their flexibility for some time, despite heavy lifting. Others, like most of us, are not so lucky. Lifting weights produces enough microfibers to reduce our flexibility. These microfibers accumulate over time, and we lose more each year.

For most golfers, they will not be able to see this loss in their swing for about a year or two.

But then it is too late. Because microfibers are scar tissue, they cannot be stretched out.

Microfibers can be released through Microfiber Reduction, a special form of connective tissue massage developed by Somax. You can see examples here.

As for Phil, we don't know why he is locking his rear knee at the top of his backswing this year. Has he lost flexibility from lifting weights? Or is it a change recommended by his coach? We don't know. We can only guess. But we do know that it is not a change for the better.

An Efficient Swing

Beating Tiger Woods, as the tour has found out, is not easy. The only way we can see to do it is to beat him mentally (good luck!) or beat him with a more efficient swing. Fortunately for the rest of the tour, Tiger has some swing problems. If one of the top golfers went to the trouble of developing a swing that was more efficient than Tiger's, he would have a chance of beating him. After all, in any competition, it is difficult to beat someone more efficient.

What would an efficient swing look like?

For one, the Spine Angle would be constant prior to impact. A constant Spine Angle would improve accuracy far beyond what is seen on tour today. Iron Byron, the ball-hitting robot had a constant Spine Angle, and hit 280 yard drives into a 10 yard circle all day long.

Ten yards. Over and over again.

Not because it was a machine, but because of the way it was designed.

Imagine, for instance, if Iron Byron had been designed like Phil, with a 37.5% change in Spine Angle between address and impact (40-25=15/40=37.5%). The robot would never hit the ball!

There are only two ways to maintain the Spine Angle constant under the onslaught of centrifugal force. The first is to fight the force. Don't let the 100 lbs. of centrifugal force generated by the driver extend your club and hands, bringing them up to the swing plane.

Some golfers have tried this. They were among the best of all time. Here are three of them: Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino.

Sam Snead at AddressSam Snead at Impact
Sam Snead At Address                           Sam Snead At Impact

Ben hogan at AddressBen hogan at Impact
 Ben Hogan At Address                      Ben Hogan At Impact

Lee Trevino at AddressLee Trevino at Impact
Lee Trevino at Address                    Lee Trevino At Impact

This seems like a very smart solution to the centrifugal force problem. Centrifugal force pulls the driver away from you with 100 lbs. of force during the downswing. This pull tends to extend the arms and club into a straight line (the shortest distance between two points). It also increases the distance between the head of the club and your shoulders by 6-7'. This is why most golfers have to ';stand up' or change their Spine Angle between address and impact. They have to compensate for this increase in distance. If they kept their Spine Angle constant, their club would be 6-7' underground!

Some of the best golfers in history elected to fight centrifugal force and not let it extend their club and arms. They fought to return the club to the exact same position it was at address (you can see that Trevino was the most successful). By not letting their arms and club extend, they were able to keep their Spine Angles constant, and shoot with greater accuracy than their opponents.

It seems like the perfect solution—if you don't know your golf history.

These three golfers had something in common besides great ballstriking.

The yips ended each one of their careers.

The reason the yips ended their careers has to do with how they fought centrifugal force day after day, year after year.

How do you resist 100 lbs. of force from an object travelling 100 miles an hour? How do you not let it extend your arms and club? What do you resist that forces with?

You resist it with your forearm muscles.

These muscles are not very big, as you can see by looking down at your forearms.

One hundred pounds. Let's see. That's the same amount of force generated by curling a 100 lb. dumbbell.

Do you know anyone who does 100 lb. wrist curls?

I don't.

Trevino used his wrist muscles to keep his driver from extending. He was, in effect, doing 100 lb. wrist curls. Snead and Hogan used the muscles between the forearm and upper arm. They were doing 100 lb. biceps and brachialis curls.

Most guys use 25 lbs. for curls. Not 100 lbs.

But this is what Snead, Hogan and Trevino did, day after day. Pounding balls on the range, hitting them in tournaments.

When you overload small muscles, as we explained above, you tear muscle fibers. This creates scar tissue. The scar tissue, or microfibers, bind the muscles of the forearms together. These three must have had forearms like bricks.

Can you putt with bricks? No. To putt, you need relaxed, soft muscles. Separate, relaxed muscles that can lightly grip the putter, squaring the face at impact. You need surgeon's hands, not bricklayers hands, to putt well.

Snead, Hogan and Trevino built up so much tension and scar tissue in their forearms over their illustrious careers, than in the end, their muscles revolted. When they had to lightly grip the putter, their forearm muscles said ';the hell with it' and spasmed. The result is that they yipped their putts.

Each one of these golfers were mystified as to why they developed the yips. No one in their era knew of microfibers. No one thought of looking at how they managed centrifugal force. No one thought to tie together their use of their driver and their putting.

But now that we know what causes the yips, we can say that this strategy, while successful in the short run, has an unacceptable cost.

Most good golfers have elected to go with centrifugal force. Jack Nicklaus was one.

Jack Nicklaus at AddressJack Nicklaus at Impact
Jack Nicklaus at Address                 Jack Nicklaus At Impact

Jack was one of the few players who could have matched Tiger mentally. His mental toughness and great hand-eye co-ordination allowed him to play well despite his abrupt change in Spine Angle. But there are no Jack Nicklaus's on tour today, so 'going ballistic' or letting your club and arms extend, and changing your Spine Angle is no longer an option if you want to beat #1.

This brings us to solution #2.

Bring your hands to the swing plane at address.

If your hands are already on the swing plane, the distance between the club head and your shoulders is already as long as it can possibly be (except for some stretching of the shoulder muscles in your upper back under the pull of centrifugal force during your downswing). Centrifugal force can't extend the distance 6-7' as it does with golfers who drop their hands at address. With little or no extension taking place, you can afford to keep your Spine Angle constant between address and impact.

Your swing will look like this.

Address with hands on swing planeBackswing with hands on swing planeImpact with hands on swing plane

Golf, of course, is one of the most conservative of all sports, apart from the huge changes in club and ball technology over the past two decades. One of its charms is that it has not given in to hooliganism, and steroids does not seem to help.

(It may help the women, but now that a drug policy is in place, we hopefully will not be seeing women golfers who look like female Chinese swimmers!).

But golfers freely adopt new technology, they worry a lot about how they look on course. They want to be better, but they don't really want to look too different.

It will take a lot of courage for a tour player to put his hands on his swing plane at address. Would Phil do it if it gave him a chance of beating Tiger? We don't know.

We do know that it does lower scores. One golfer who bought one of our Power Hip Trainers put his hands on his swing plane at address after reading our new book. With this one change (and the increase in his hip speed) his drives went longer and straighter. He dropped his handicap from 5 to 1. But this guy does not care how he looks to others. His only concern is beating them.

So, what will we see of Phil this year. Judging from his swing changes, we are not hopeful of a good year. Phil may prove us wrong, but it takes a lot to overcome poor alignment and a stiff rear leg.