Mickelson teams with Harmon for Players victory

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It was at the Masters last month where Butch Harmon, the subject of much ribbing from his brothers, took another good-natured shot. The teaching professionals were receiving an award, but Billy Harmon could not resist another dig.

"How come everybody says Butch is the No. 1 teacher in the world when he's not even the No. 1 teacher in his family?" he said to sustained laughter.

Yeah, Butch Harmon has to take some grief. He has as much confidence in himself as some of the best golfers in the world do in their own ability. For some, he's a bit too high-profile. Too much of the story.

Harmon didn't hit a single shot during the final round of the Players Championship on Sunday, but there's no denying that he was a big part of Phil Mickelson's winning weekend.

Less than a month after Mickelson dumped his friend and long-time swing coach Rick Smith in favor of Harmon -- who helped Tiger Woods win eight majors before he, too, was dumped -- Lefty has the prestigious Players Championship on his résumé and a suddenly cheery outlook when it comes to adding to his three major championships.

"He's got as much talent as anybody in the world, other than maybe Tiger," Harmon said while Mickelson was accepting the trophy. "And I think if we can get him [hitting] out of the fairway, I think he can maybe rival Tiger. He's got a short game that's as good or better than Tiger's.

"It's a mind-set. It's a matter of trying to get him to play a little more conservatively, not quite as aggressively. That may be a bigger problem than the swing."

Harmon chuckled.

Everyone knows that Phil has fired at too many flags, tried a few too many risky shots.

But what plagued him going back to last year's U.S. Open was the wayward drive. It killed him at Winged Foot, and was holding him back through the early part of this year. Even though Mickelson won at Pebble Beach and finished second at the Nissan Open, he was not happy with his driving.

Mickelson said the reason for his change to Harmon was to try to take advantage of all the improvements in his short game -- improvements that could be capitalized on if he could simply play from the fairway.

Now before we get carried away, Mickelson was hardly stellar off the tee this week. Through the tournament's first three rounds, he hit just 20 of 42 fairways. But obviously there was a comfort level, a confidence that developed in working with Harmon. They were on the range at 8 a.m. Saturday, more than six hours before his tee time. They worked again Sunday morning, and it paid off, as Mickelson managed to hit 10 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens.

Normally a swing change takes weeks or months, to sink in. Players have been known to take several steps backward before seeing improvement. Think about Woods when he left Harmon for Hank Haney. He spent a year refining the changes. Perhaps Mickelson's overhaul is not as drastic; both he and Harmon are coy about the changes. But it is pretty amazing to think that in a few weeks time, he has found success.

"The most important thing in this is he had to buy into this and he had to feel comfortable doing it under pressure," Harmon said. "To me that is the most impressive thing. We're three weeks into a pretty good change and this is a guy who's been a great player his whole life. There's a lot that goes into it. He has to buy into the process. He has to believe in it. He has to be able to take it to the course and trust it -- which he did instantly."

"Butch has an ability to communicate what he wants the player to do," said Adam Scott, another of Harmon's high-profile pupils. "Somehow, they can absorb what Butch tells them."

Now the future looks so much brighter for Mickelson. He is 36 and ranked second in the world again to Woods, whom he is unlikely to catch but at least seems poised to challenge.

"What's most exciting is I feel like we're just getting started," Mickelson said. "This is only week No. 3. I feel like in three months, how much are we going to progress? In three years, where am I going to be?"

Mickelson had already answered his own question.

When he walked off the 18th green to the cheers of thousands of fans, he spotted Harmon and put his arms around him. After signing his scorecard, Mickelson handed Harmon a signed flag from his victory which read, "Butch: the first of many."

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.