The lumpy, bumpy links of Royal St George's resemble the manicured slopes of the Augusta National in scarcely any way at all, but for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon they reverberated to a sound that the patrons of Augusta know only too well, the sound of a Phil Mickelson charge.
olling in putt after left-handed putt, buoyed by tumultuous roars punctuated by so many cries of "c'mon Phil" that you could have shut your eyes and imagined yourself in deepest Georgia, Mickelson reached the turn in 30 strokes. It might easily have been 28. On the eighth he lipped out, and on the ninth narrowly miscalculated from no more than eight feet. A split-second later, even before he had finished ruefully shaking his head, another tumult arrived on the wind; Darren Clarke had eagled the seventh to restore his two-shot lead and Mickelson, who had fleetingly shared the top of the leaderboard, had it all to do again. Almost inevitably, he then birdied the 10th. When he is in that kind of form and mood, the Californian has the forward momentum of a three-ton truck. Unfortunately for him, there was a four-ton truck in his slipstream.
This is not a comment on the girths of Clarke, Mickelson and, repeatedly threatening to join them in the battle of the fortysomethings, Thomas Bjorn. Nevertheless, when those men trample something underfoot it stays trampled on, and yesterday it was the notion embodied by the likes of Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler that golf is a game for svelte young things. Maybe the old boys were inspired by playing in a place called Sandwich.
Wherever it is played, however, the Open Championship has a nasty habit of restoring reality to a scorecard that is beginning to read like a fairy tale, especially when a mighty wind brings occasional bursts of torrential rain. Moreover, Mickelson himself has a habit of imposing his own reality checks, and on the 11th he missed a tiddler for par that most of the under-10s sitting around the green would have fancied. Further bogeys followed at the 13th, 15th and 16th.
So outrageously unerring on the outward half, fabulous Phil had suddenly turned back into fallible Phil. He was like Samson after a short back and sides, taking eight more shots coming home than he had going out, including an approach on the 18th that would have besmirched the end of a midweek medal, let alone an Open. In truth, that was more typical of his performances in the 17 Opens he has contested. Until yesterday, the four-times major champion had only registered a single top-10 finish, at Royal Troon in 2004.
He will not take home too much delight in his front-nine card yesterday, yet it represented one of the great bursts of Open scoring. Only 12 men have scored lower than 30 over nine holes of this venerable championship, and none of them at Royal St George's. For the record, the Englishman Denis Durnian's 28 over the front half at Royal Birkdale, in the second round in 1983, remains the lowest nine holes in Open history.
The winner that year was Tom Watson, to whom Mickelson paid tribute here on Saturday evening, following the 61-year-old's remarkable 72 in the worst of the wind and rain. "You know, if we had weather like we had this morning the entire tournament, I don't know who's going to beat him," he said. "He was behind me the first couple of days and I'd watch his approach shots because he just knows how to do it here."
For two memorable hours yesterday, clubbed and practically coached by his long-time caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson was the one dishing out the links lessons. "Give yourself good thoughts, a good tempo," said Bones on the elevated tee of the 564-yard par-five seventh, which Mickelson, albeit with the help of a ferocious downwind, reduced to a drive, a wedge, and a 50-ft putt. "Picture it in your head," advised Bones, as Mickelson stood over his second shot.
At that moment, he might also have been picturing a Claret Jug. That, however, was destined for another fortysomething, a little older, somewhat broader and considerably greyer, but yesterday impervious to the best that America could throw at him. Mickelson finished joint runner- up with Dustin Johnson, good enough to take away a cheque for £520,000, and afterwards stressed his delight for Clarke.
"He was one of the first people that called us, Amy and I, a couple of years ago [during Amy Mickelson's struggle with breast cancer, which had killed Clarke's wife, Heather]. He's been through this and couldn't have been a better person to talk to. We talked for a few hours a couple of times. He's a tremendous person and I couldn't be happier for him. It was fun to try to make a run at him."