A few years back, Phil Mickelson went through something of a sea change, and it had nothing to do with links golf. The leftie from San Diego (in the McCarthy era he would have been blacklisted, and even now he would not be on George Bush's Christmas card list) was a great natural talent, but not quite fulfilled.
Mickelson and Tiger Woods were paired together for the United States in the Ryder Cup, and it was supposed to be better than mortice and tenon - this was the dream team. It didn't work out like that. Tiger would become the world No 1 and the favourite for every tournament he entered, and Mickelson was the southpaw with a flaw. In Woods's eyes, Mickelson's weakness was that he was a huge talent who didn't work hard enough.
Mickelson, however, saw the light, and over the past few years has out-mastered the master at the Masters at Augusta. Mickelson has the Green Jacket - he was also fitted for it in 2004 and won the US PGA championship in 2005 - and would have won the US Open at Winged Foot a few weeks back but for making a monumental mess of the 18th hole in the final round.
Afterwards, Mickelson's behaviour was out of character. He sat down and didn't utter a word to anybody for about an hour. Finally, his youngest daughter asked : "Did you win, Daddy?'' "No,'' he replied. "Would you like some pizza?'' she asked. Torment over, real life back on track.
Yesterday Mickelson went mano-a-mano with Darren Clarke (rather than with the third member of the party, the Japanese player Yasuharu Imano) in the first round of the Open, and both appeared on the leaderboard at three under par following 69s.
Mickelson, with the help of an eagle on the par-five fifth, went to the turn in 32 and came back in 37; Clarke went out in 36 and came home in 33. At Winged Foot, Mickelson's woes were, of course, as nothing in the wider world to Clarke's. His wife, Heather, has breast cancer, and last night Clarke said: "I am finishing this week and I won't play again in the foreseeable future. I have more pressing things to attend to.'' This season Clarke has been in the habit of appearing on leaderboards but disappearing come the climax on Sunday. He may have found an antidote. On Wednesday came a call from a friend, Conor O'Brien, a former doctor to the Irish Olympic team.
"The past few weeks have been pretty good until Sunday afternoons, and Conor noticed that I was looking a bit dehydrated and not doing what I should be doing on the back nine in the last round,'' Clarke said. "He had a few tips for me and told me what to do, and it seemed to work. His advice was to keep drinking as much as I possibly can and to get lots of isotonic drinks into me, at night and in the mornings. He's obviously an expert in his field. He knew what he was looking at, and it was obvious to him that that was one of my problems. With all that's been going on, I have probably neglected that."
Clarke and Mickelson are determined to give this Open their best shots, and both have started well. "The course is fantastic,'' Clarke said. "I read an article slagging Hoylake off and saying it wasn't up to holding an Open championship. I have to say I don't know what course they were looking at, because this is pure links, and it's as good as it gets. You've got to think all the way around. You can putt it, chip it, hit a five-iron from 40 yards. You can do whatever you want. In essence, that's links golf. If you hit it on the fairway, there are opportunities out there. I made the most of it, and I got lucky with the draw.''
Clarke has won a host of tournaments but never a major, and when asked it he could win here, he replied: "I've got no idea. To tell you the truth, I just don't know. If I carry on playing the way I've played then I might have a chance come Sunday. That's all I'm looking for.''
Mickelson was joint leader at one stage, but let it slip after the turn. "I hit some poor shots coming in and put the ball in a few spots I didn't want to be in.'' Especially on the 12th, where he putted off the green for a bogey. "In my opinion the 12th and 14th are the two toughest holes, particularly when they play into the wind. At three under I'm in good shape, and I'll see if I can make some more birdies this weekend.''
As for Clarke, he is drinking an isotonic toast to O'Brien. The good doctor is an avuncular figure who weighs in at around 18 and a half stone and is not averse to a pint of the black stuff. Nor, of course, is Clarke, but he may have to put it on ice for a few days.Reuse content