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Mickelson still seeking improvement after Harmon split

The family portrait at Muirfield included Phil Mickelson's longtime caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay, far right, as well as swing coach Butch Harmon, center. Harmon said helping Lefty win The Open in 2013 was "one of the pinnacles of my career." David Cannon/R&A/Getty Images

Phil Mickelson is often self-deprecating when it comes to his golf, offering up one-liners on his off-line tee shots, taking the edge off any serious tone about his struggles, almost always finding the positive going forward.

For most of the past two years, while he has rarely contended but shown flashes of the old Phil just often enough to make you believe a turnaround was possible, Lefty was typically suggesting things were close.

"I feel like my golf swing has taken a turn for the better,'' Mickelson said at the Scottish Open in July, one of several examples in which Mickelson suggested he was not far removed from the final groups on Sunday. "Much more control over the shots.''

But the truth is, Mickelson didn't contend in a tournament the rest of the year, didn't post a top-10 finish, was barely inside the top 20 on just two occasions.

And that apparently led to the surprising decision that was first reported by Golf.com on Wednesday in which Mickelson was splitting with longtime coach Butch Harmon.

The two began working together in 2007, several weeks prior to Mickelson's victory at the Players Championship. It was the beginning of a successful relationship that saw Mickelson win two major championships, 12 PGA Tour titles and three other tournaments on the European Tour.

Their greatest triumph together was the 2013 Open at Muirfield, a tournament Mickelson was never expected to win because links golf gave him fits over the years as he rarely contended in golf's oldest major championship. But Mickelson blew past the field on the final day to hoist the Claret Jug. His 66 was the only score under 70 among the final 11 groups.

"One of the pinnacles of my career,'' Harmon said in a statement released by Mickelson's management company.

Mickelson also released a statement in which he praised Harmon, pushed him for the World Golf Hall of Fame and said he had learned a great deal under his tutelage.

"It's just that at the moment I need to hear new ideas from a different perspective,'' he said.

Mickelson was not available for further comment Wednesday, and so it remains unclear what he has in mind. The decision came as a surprise because Mickelson, 45, is toward the end of his career, seemingly not at a stage where he wants to overhaul his swing.

He is still ranked 25th in the world, and while a disappointing season concluded at the BMW Championship -- Mickelson failed to make the Tour Championship for the second straight year -- there were those infrequent signs, such as a tie for second at the Masters and a tie for third at the FedEx St. Jude the week prior to the U.S. Open.

But his best result after that was a tie for 18th at the PGA Championship, where he was never in serious contention. A strong Presidents Cup in which Mickelson went 3-0-1 was a nice story, but perhaps a clue came following Mickelson's final round at the BMW in September.

"This offseason is going to be a little bit different for me,'' said Mickelson, a five-time major winner with 42 PGA Tour victories. "I have a little bit of work that I need to complete on my golf swing. I haven't been on plane; I've been a little steep, and that's led to some poor ballstriking and it gets progressively worse with the longer stuff.

"However I'm excited about where it's gone the last couple of months and I think another 3-4 months in the offseason and I look forward to come back ready for January.''

Harmon, 72, has talked in recent years about slowing down, although he still has a healthy list of clients that includes Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker.

His father, Claude Sr., won the Masters in 1948 and Harmon was a tour winner himself in a brief career before he began teaching.

Harmon was Greg Norman's instructor when the Shark went to No. 1 and he was with Tiger Woods from his amateur days through 2002, overseeing a swing change that saw Woods win seven of 11 majors and eight in all on Harmon's watch.

With Mickelson, Harmon sought to shorten Lefty's swing, get it more consistent, get him to think less about the distance he always craved. And through those years, there was plenty of success, but never that consistency.

Starting in 2008, Mickelson has never ranked better than 140th in driving accuracy. And he was in the top 50 in greens in regulation just once, cracking the top 100 just three times.

Is that Harmon's fault? If so, such criticism never really came his way, certainly not to the extent that Woods' instructors felt the heat after he and Harmon parted ways.

Consider that Mickelson won 15 times worldwide from 2007 through 2015 with Harmon, with no victories in the past two years. During that same period, Woods won 17 times worldwide under Haney and nine times worldwide under Sean Foley.

A good bit of that is likely due to the standard of excellence Woods set through all those years. While he and Mickelson were the game's biggest stars, there was always an understanding that Phil was going to have much bigger valleys than Tiger. The dips in Mickelson's game were almost expected, usually to be followed by a turnaround that has been slow to come this time.

In a sense it is admirable that Mickelson remains committed enough to continue seeking answers that will help him. Harmon, having been around the block a few times, undoubtedly understands that hearing something new is a good idea for one of his most prized pupils.

Whether it results in a late-career revival is to be determined.