Eyebrows were raised throughout the media center here when it was announced that Phil Mickelson had canceled his pre-tournament news conference for the PGA Championship.
Just moments earlier at his own news conference, Tiger Woods had refused to address a rumor that Mickelson’s health has taken a turn for the worse and that his rare arthritic condition, which leads to fatigue, stiffness and swelling, has been behind the worst slump of his career, now dragging into a third month.
“I’m not going to speculate like you guys,” Woods said. “Whatever Phil says, he says about his health.”
In canceling his news conference, was Mickelson trying to avoid addressing such questions?
Certainly, speculation has been rampant since the 42-year-old controversially withdrew after one round of the Memorial — citing fatigue after shooting 79 — then couldn’t do better than 65th at the US Open and missed the cuts at the Greenbrier Classic and British Open.
He didn’t look sharper in finishing in a tie for 43rd at last week’s limited-field Bridgestone Invitational, and he opened the PGA Championship with 73-71.
“Phil is not one to give excuses, but if you look, his weight has gone up and down,” said former tour player and Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo. “He just doesn’t look 100 percent.”
Nobilo said that, as an arthritis sufferer himself, he believes Mickelson’s play since May “fits the mold of someone that’s actually suffering with the disease.”
Nobilo’s colleague, Brandel Chamblee, said if that’s the case, it presents problems for Mickelson. “I think Phil Mickelson is reluctant to be completely transparent because it opens himself up to a lot of different questions that he probably wouldn’t want to answer,” Chamblee said.
Mickelson endorses Enbrel, a drug that’s supposed to allow psoriatic arthritis sufferers to live normal lives. He takes the drug, so if it’s not working, it puts him in a quandary.
A member of Mickelson’s camp dismissed the speculation, however, saying that Mickelson “feels fine.”
He said the news conference was canceled because a series of storms that rolled into Kiawah on Tuesday changed Mickelson’s practice schedule. “There’s no conspiracy of silence,” he said.
So if it isn’t health, what’s Phil’s problem?
His tour statistics this year aren’t flattering.
Ever since he emphatically destroyed Tiger Woods to win at Pebble Beach in February, Mickelson’s play has steadily declined. He has fallen to 168th in driving accuracy and 111th in greens hit in regulation.
And he’s not only crooked but not as long as he once was.
Chamblee said Mickelson’s clubhead speed has fallen from 120 mph to 116 mph, which equates to 12 to 15 yards off the tee.
“You’re losing a little bit off your fastball,” he said.
Nick Faldo said we might just be seeing the natural evolution of a golfer; falling victim to Father Time. “He’s crossed the 40-year-old line which — I can speak of this — does make a difference as a golfer.”
Then there’s the question of motivation.
Mickelson went to Europe to celebrate his wife’s 40th birthday the week before the Memorial tournament, returned to play in a corporate outing on Long Island, then flew to Ohio, hardly fresh. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars on and off the golf course and has varied interests. Just this week it was announced that a group that includes Mickelson has bought Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres.
Last week in Akron, Mickelson talked about his problems on the course, acknowledging he has a long way to go.
“I’m piecing it together,” he said. “I feel really good with my irons. I’ve got good distance control, control with my misses. They’re about as good as they’ve been and about as good as I can expect, and my putting was much better.
“My short game needs some work. I’ve been spending so much time on long game, my short game needs some work. I didn’t get up and down any of the times I missed the green.
“And, obviously, my driver. I’ve got to spend some time now with my driver and 3-wood getting it in play because that was horrific.”
As if he needs added pressure going into the year’s final major, Mickelson has been paired with Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III.
Mickelson currently is eighth in the standings, the last automatic qualifying spot. He could fall out and, with Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler breathing down his neck, might need Love to make him a captain’s pick for the matches, to be played in September in Chicago.
If the slump continues, Chamblee says Mickelson is “going to really handcuff Davis Love.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Love, however, sounded very much like a man who wants Mickelson with him in Chicago.