Phil's Decisions on the 72nd at the PGA

Starting this because I think there’s a lesson for us in every shot Phil made on the last hole of the PGA, especially in light of his history and current metrics.

Tee shot: You’ve gotta know that Winged Foot and the tee shot when he was leading the US Open was at least in his subconscious. Unlike conventional wisdom at the time of that tournament, however, which probably would have advised 3-wood off the tee to put the ball center of the fairway but 30 yards back, the shots gained metric now tells you that you shouldn’t give up that yardage. Phil doesn’t but doesn’t play the hero shot down towards the ocean, which Koepka needed to, but instead makes his mistake inland.

Approach: Phil gets a bit of a bad break when the ball runs further left than he might have hoped, but a good break in that the ball only runs into an area the spectators have trampled down. BTW, keep in mind that according to the CBS stats aired at the time, Phil at 50 has hit his tee shot 7 yards shorter than Koepka at 32. Phil’s approach, with a 9-iron, hardly what he needed for the length of his shot when Koepka, just shorter, played a full PW, allows him to make a more controlled swing which he aims for the center of the green. The Phil who’s 30s aims straight for the tougher pin position as Koepka must whose good but not great shot is on line but farther from the pin.

First putt: If there’s a greater difference between the old Phil and the new, this putt is it. Knowing he can three-putt to win, the old Phil tries to finish with a flourish by slamming the ball in the hole. This Phil knows a putt that’s on line but safely struck, might go in–or finish just to the right of the hole. As it does for a tap-in major win.

I know that some put Phil’s win behind Jack’s and Tiger’s late career wins at the Masters. As much as I love those two golfers above Phil, Phil won on a tougher course paired in the final round with a tougher golfer because he made great decisions every step of the way. We can learn from his thought process.


Watching Phil really brought into focus why Tiger had such disdain for him for so long. He’s one of the most naturally gifted golfers in the modern history of the game, but didn’t put the work in to maximize that talent. I’m happy he’s now doing that at 50, but imagine the Tiger/Phil battles we could have seen had he done it at 30.


Yep. Imagine a Phil with a career Grand Slam and nine or ten majors. Or imagine the mashed up careers of Tiger and Phil: Tiger who won an amazing amount in his 20s but then slid when the other great golfers, other than Bobby Jones, won a fair amount in their 30s and early 40s and Phil, who won no majors in his 20s but then became a force in his 30s and 40s–admittedly at a time when Tiger’s game fell off. That’s the 20-25 majors many predicted for Tiger at the beginning of his career.

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This is where we get into a whole butterfly effect thing though, what effect would a less-dominant Tiger career (because of a stronger Phil and possibly stronger field because Tiger would have seemed more beatable) have on where the game of golf is today?

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The tee shot was key there. ANYWHERE NOT RIGHT! He could have hit it off the planet left. The grandstands protected him, dead downwind. If he hit it in the stands,so what? Drop, Everything trampled down…so clean lie, Not a tree in sight for miles. Not that difficult. The difference was fans…finally. on another post…The only reason Lefty didn’t win more was mental & focus, AND I don’t think he ever really told us how that horrible disease he has affects him, period. Listen to me when I tell you what he has is scary bad and I’m glad he’s in remission. My best estimate is he should have won at least 60 tournaments,Phil is/was a pound and gouge golfer, he still has a top 4 short game and you don’t get that without practice and talent. King was that way too! Bear, Tiger, Hawk…not so much. Every single course, hole, shot…for those guys…had a plan. Brooks should have won this, but I think there’s more to that story on the physical end that came into play here or there and that’s the tournament.

Tiger had the nicklaus / hogan mindset. Unbelievable discipline on the golf course.

Phil much more of a walter hagen.

I do wonder how much he could have won if he had just shaped the ball one direction off the tee and been a bit more conservative.

Probably a LOT more


To be clear though, Phil is a complete FREAK.

Wins a major at 50 moving the ball a different direction every other shot!!

Was really stoked and was rooting for him as soon as he pulled off that crazy back nine on friday.

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I didn’t realize he had psoriatic arthritis. That is a bad disease, especially during flare ups. Modern synthetic antibodies (e.g., Embrel, Taltz) have been a Godsend. Thankfully, Phil can afford them.

On the strategy discussion—and I think Fawcett would smile at me turning the discussion this way—I don’t think looking at pure Strokes Added is the way to assess the proper strategy for playing the final holes of a tournament. I don’t think that, on the final hole(s) of a tournament, SA correlates as strongly with %chance of victory as it does throughout the rest of the competition.

To me, it looks like instead like the situation in poker where a tournament field is nearly at the point where the surviving players are going to make money, or win seats, if a satellite tournament. In those spots, like Phil on the 72nd tee with a two shot lead, decisions are frequently made not to maximize pure expectation value or Strokes Added, but to eliminate the possiblity of losing. People in poker tournaments in those very limited situations, will often fold the best possible initial hand, and the math says they’re right to do so.

IOW, it’s fine to lose .2 shots added by laying up with X club, if by doing so you completely eliminate the possibility of having a blow up which could jeopardize your championship lead. Play for par/bogey, if all you need is that on that hole, in order to win.

I’m proud of Phil, and not just for overcoming what can be a hideous disease. The Phil who lost to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst, wouldn’t have shook off losing part of his lead coming down the stretch like Phil did on that Sunday.

Strictly true on the strategy off the tee, but given current golf advice and Phil’s personality, it was an interesting decision. The common wisdom at the time of that US Open would have been to lay up with a club–I can almost hear Johnny Miller saying that on the telecast–but now, I don’t think that’s the advice most pros would follow. And keep in mind that with a slightly better approach shot, Koepka has a realistic chance at birdie; if Koepka puts that pressure on, giving up yardage off the tee is almost the equivalent of playing for a playoff rather than a win since a bogey would have resulted in another two-shot swing.

Phil chose the “safer” route for his bomb off the tee since the miss left would likely afford him relief while Koepka, the pursuer, had to go to the right towards the ocean. Koepka hit a very good shot, but it was a lot riskier as the tournament would have effectively ended with a slightly worse outcome. The old Phil would have gone the same way for the style points but the new Phil didn’t, and ultimately, the more focused and risk averse Phil gave himself a better chance to win the tournament.

If Phil could have been this way years ago, I suspect that one of those six US Open runner ups he has would have turned into a victory and secured his career Grand Slam.

My reading this afternoon brought me across this quote:

“To make a better decision (not a “good” one, but a better one) comes down to making highly educated guesses with the information you have, allowing plenty of room for luck.”

This quote isn’t from a book about golf, but it seems fully applicable to the strategy we’re talking about here. We can’t always factor the full extent of luck into our decisions on the golf course–many “bad” bounces affecting a golf shot are actually exactly what should happen if a ball strikes a sloped mound the way it does–mostly because not even the best pros can consistently hit a driver to an exact yardage on an exact trajectory most of the time.

But accounting for luck helps to acknowledge its potential effects before hitting the shot, making it easier to shrug it off and move onto the next shot–a skill that we know all the great players have and that both Phil and Koepka showed on 18 Sunday.

The more I practice, the LUCKIER I get----Gary Player.

That quote is great. I love the mindset of the great golfers. I remember Hogan saying in Five Fundamentals that he worked on simplifying the game so ceaselessly that he felt his swing actually got better under pressure.

Now nearly every study of sports has shown that Hogan’s comment isn’t quite correct, but imagine the advantage of such a mindset. BTW, most of those studies have concluded that great players don’t get better under pressure, but their falloff from peak performance is much less than the falloff for more mortal players. And of course, for any short period of time, any player, great or not, can exceed their normal performance.

Phil tried playing conservatively a few different times in his career and failed miserably. He’s built to go for it. This style has led to both spectacular wins and spectacular flameouts. But I do not think he would have won as much had he played more conservatively his entire career.

To be fair to Phil, and everyone of that era, Tiger took the game to a whole new level in terms of the work required to be great. Vijay was the first to catch on and put in the work to match Tiger. Phil did eventually and has talked openly about how much better Tiger made him.

Purely guessing here, but I think phil vs tiger double bogey rate may drive a lot of their difference in results

Also phil being wild with the driver i just cant imagine that playing one shape would have been beneficial. Hard to say though…he “slings” the club quite a bit more than the more modern guys who rotate more

Also one more thing for this thread to chew on

Phil and koepka were likely aiming at about the same spot on 18

Driver dispersions are large


Maybe, but probably not. Good golf course architecture features multiple routes to a hole, even for championship-level golfers. There was a safer (not timid) route, which Phil followed, as he was the leader. There is also a more dangerous route, which opens up the green on approach shots, theoretically increasing the chance of birdie. That’s the route Koepka followed as he was the pursuer and needed to put pressure on Mickelson. A five by Mickelson and a three by Koepka forces a playoff. What Mickelson couldn’t afford was a double, which he effectively took out of play by staying left.

The approach shot results, of course, actually gave Phil the easier putt for birdie, both closer and on a more level approach to the hole than Koepka. Those are the breaks of the game. If Phil’s approach goes through the green, as it did on 17, and Koepka sticks his close, there probably would have been a playoff, and maybe like Watson at Turnberry in 2009, Phil would have yielded to the younger golfer.

Yes, driver dispersion is a factor, but these two golfers at the top of their games were unlikely to hit two so divergent shots while aiming for the same spot on the fairway.