Written by
Mike McAllister
Jan 22 2024
- 8 min
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At last year’s LIV Golf Team Championship in Miami, Phil Mickelson and his HyFlyers GC held a team dinner. Phil’s wife Amy picked out the end-of-season gift for members and staff. Each person received a saber, with one particular purpose – to chop the top off champagne bottles.

The technique is called Sabrage, and the goal is to slide the saber along the seam of the bottle and break the top of the neck by hitting the lip, sending the collar and cork flying while champagne flows from the opening.

It’s not exactly an easy art to master, but everybody took a turn. Some fared better than others. Successful attempts received cheers; failures were met with laughter. So, how did the captain do?

“Well,” said Mickelson, trying to suppress a smile, “I’ve studied the art of Sabrage for many years.”

Why does that not surprise us?

That night of bonding extended through the ensuing holidays, as players and staff celebrated New Year’s with more attempts at Sabrage at their various locales, sharing the results. Mickelson called it a “moment that kind of transcended” and gave kudos to Amy. “I give her a lot of credit in creating these gatherings that bring us together create a lot of laughs,” he said.

It’s good to see Mickelson laughing. After all, it hasn’t exactly been a non-stop giggle-fest for him since joining LIV Golf, a move that was announced in June of 2022 during the week of the inaugural event in London.

As the league’s most decorated and successful player – 57 wins, including six majors, and membership in the World Golf Hall of Fame – Mickelson is its most visible player. Beyond his duties as captain of the HyFlyers, he also understood the responsibility of championing LIV Golf during an atmosphere that wasn’t exactly embracing, at least by traditional golf circles. “I knew the first two years were going to be difficult,” he said.

It impacted his ability to focus on his golf game. Mickelson, who in 2021 at age 50 became golf’s oldest major winner by claiming the PGA Championship, struggled for results. He had one top-10 in 2022, an eighth-place finish in Chicago thanks to a final-round 66. Consistency remained an issue last season. He had just one top-10 in 13 regular-season starts, although he had a share of the lead during the final round of Singapore and was tied for second through 36 holes in Bedminster.

His best performance in 2023 came on a non-LIV week – the Masters, when he shot a final-round 65 to claim a share of second place with fellow LIV captain Brooks Koepka. It was the 12th runner-up finish of his major career.

Managing his time became a challenge. He took his captain duties seriously, wanting to build the HyFlyers brand while also working with his teammates – fellow Californians Brendan Steele and Cameron Tringale, and especially young James Piot last season. One scene stands out – Piot on the range before a tournament, working on his short game while Mickelson watched from behind, wearing flip-flops and offering advice and tips. The session lasted more than an hour. They were both enjoying the time, the mentor working with a young, talented player that he believes in and hopes to help maximize his potential. But Phil never swung a club.

“There have been a lot of things that have taken away the single-minded focus on my game that is needed for me to play my best,” Mickelson said. “That might be part of it, being a captain and having some ancillary responsibilities ... Additionally, all of the LIV disruption and being at the center of a lot of that.

“Now that things are starting to settle, a lot of that responsibility that I have felt – or obligation that I have felt to create this positive change in the game – is diminishing for me. I’m able to focus on golf more. I have a lot less stress, a lot less anxiety.”

As a result, the upcoming 2024 LIV Golf League season, which starts in Mayakoba on Feb. 2-4, should see the return of Mickelson the Golfing Legend. Steele said the reason is simple. “Phil’s going to be able to feel more freedom,” he said. “He can go do his thing, and we’ve got his back.”

Although Mickelson turns 54 in June, he’s convinced there’s still plenty of competitive life in his game.

“This year's going to be an interesting year for me,” he said, “because I've put in a lot of work in the offseason, physically on my body, my game, and my mind, to be sharp going forward. These last couple of years of disruption and transition has been difficult on me and has taken a lot of energy away from my ability to perform, but I believe that I'm in a position to perform at a really high level.

“We'll see, because I haven't done that in the last year or two, other than an odd tournament at the Masters this last year. I expect to perform at that level week in and week out. I think there's an opportunity for me to do that, and I've put in the work to do that. And I'm curious if, as things settle and I become feel more free like Steely was talking about, and less stress, if I'm able to perform at the level I believe I can and have in the past. And if I do that, this team aspect will have really brought a lot to me personally in my game.”

Ah, the team. His HyFlyers. Mickelson – and his wife – have poured a lot into it. With all the other elements surrounding Phil, his enthusiasm for LIV Golf’s team component and his desire to build the HyFlyers brand has gone underappreciated by the general public. While his name is the biggest one, he realizes the best way to establish camaraderie is to have buy-in from everybody.

It’s challenging – especially for someone who’s never backed down from sharing his opinions – but Mickelson is determined to hear everybody’s voice. “The greatest thing about the team is having input,” he explained. “Feeling connected and emotionally involved in the decision-making process makes you buy into it a lot more. That integration is the biggest challenge but also the greatest asset of the HyFlyers.”

That includes a team-bonding week in Southern California before the start of the season. Practicing together was an important element. So were the off-course activities and the business discussions and brainstorming sessions.

Said Steele: “To the average golf fan, they don't understand how important the team thing is to the LIV players. They think that maybe it's a little forced or contrived or whatever and it's just not. So that's a big misconception already. And then our team is so team-focused. Phil is so team-focused on what can we do as a team to get better. What do you guys want out of this? How do you want to do things? Even down to the clothes and the hats and the shorts. He's including us in everything. He wants us to be a part of it, which is really cool.

“I mean, he's Phil Mickelson. If he wanted to make all the decisions, we'll be like, sure, go ahead. We're not going to say no, but he includes us with everything. Bringing Andy [Ogletree] on, he really leaned on Cameron and I and that's who we wanted to bring on. And so, we were super-excited to be able to get him. But a lot of captains, I think, would just say, this is what we’re doing. Phil's not that way at all. He wants us to be included in all the decisions and so that's been really great.

“He's definitely driven by winning anything but winning certainly as a team is most important. I know he wants to win individually as well, but the team in a lot of ways will mean even more.”

Unfortunately, the HyFlyers have not been particularly competitive – just one podium finish in the first two years, and no team or individual wins. However, this year’s HyFlyers lineup should be more competitive.

Steele and Tringale provide steady contributions, as both finished inside the top 24 Lock Zone last year. Piot was relegated after last year; his spot in the lineup now goes to off-season acquisition Ogletree, who earned an automatic spot in the League thanks to finishing atop the International Series standings in 2023. The 2019 U.S. Amateur champ has three pro wins and showed as a reserve last season that he’s capable of making serious noise (witness his 62 in the final round of Tulsa while subbing in for Majesticks GC).

“I think Andy’s going to bring a new level of consistency to our team that we didn’t have last year,” Tringale said. “That’s so huge. If you look at the teams who did well last year, they had four solid players pretty much every week and at least three of them are hitting. So hopefully we’ll be able to get up there with Andy’s contributions.”

Said Mickelson: “I think the 2024 season is going to be an amazing year for our HyFlyers, because the addition of Andy Ogletree brings a lot to the table. The guy's a tough competitor, plays with a lot of passion, and has an incredible game. I think he's going to win major championships in his career, and I think he's going to have a high-level career.

“Plus, the opportunity to work with each other in the offseason. Myself, Camo and Steely, who all live in Southern California, have been meeting a couple of times a week working on our weaknesses and turning them into strengths for this upcoming season. I think it’s going to lead to a great year for our team. It's hard to really know where that's going to be, but we all feel like we've had a great offseason. We all feel like we put a lot of work into it, and we all can't wait for the season to start. And we're going in with a lot of optimism.

“I'm very curious to see how we do.”

And if the HyFlyers finally do win a team trophy this season? Just imagine the celebration atop the podium. After all, the protocol for any victor of a LIV Golf tournament is to pop champagne bottles. Hopefully, Mickelson and his teammates will bring their sabers.

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