James Lawton: Mickelson crosses pond only to find himself all at sea

For many years Phil Mickelson carried the burden of being the best golfer never to win a major. Now over the next few days he is obliged to fight off a new stigma, one that brands him the best American hardly ever to carry a brilliant game beyond the manicured courses and the still air of his native land.

Just twice has he won beyond the shores of home, once in Shanghai and once in the European home of Mickey Mouse, Disneyland Paris, 15 years ago. Here yesterday, however, the playground was fashioned not by Walt Disney but somebody who could have been easily mistaken for the Marquis de Sade.

Eventually the shell-shocked world No 2 was persuaded to give a hint or two of his feelings after being swept to a nine-over-par 79 – another disaster for the dashing, 38-year-old Californian lefty on a wind-blown stretch of British coastline.

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There was no baring of the soul of a golfer who earlier this week rejected all questions concerning the vacuum created here at the 137th Open by the injury to Tiger Woods, even though Mickelson did talk about his disastrously ballooning score, and his disappointment. It was, embarrassingly, as though, he was discussing something that had happened on another planet in another life.

In a sense, of course, it was. Mickelson fought his way out of the psychological grip of the Tiger for a spurt of three major wins, two US Masters and a PGA, but when he crosses the Atlantic all points of comparison with the world's greatest player seem to shrink before our eyes. Indeed, even to glance at Mickelson's Open record gives the feeling of riding roughshod over grief a supremely talented golfer might want to keep private. If we take away his third place at Troon four years ago and a tie for 11th at St Andrews in 2000, when the Tiger was opening the European branch of his empire with massive authority, it would be a study in failure by any player who reached acceptable competitive standards on the big tours. In a player who, back home in places like California, Florida and on those brilliant occasions at Augusta, can have galleries screaming his name, it is a staggering statement of failed development.

Tiger Woods went out to conquer the world of golf, the whole world – and so did Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and the South African Gary Player – which is why they are the only players to have won every one of the major titles. For some American golf experts, Mickelson's pursuit of the Open will always be nothing so much as a futile gesture.

As Mickelson was ambushed by the morning wind and rain more severely than most of his rivals, and suffered the trauma of a triple-bogey at the most treacherous hole on the course, the par-four sixth, one of those experts said, "Phil's a great talent but it's one that's made in the USA, and he thinks what he does at home will hold him in good stead when he comes over here. It doesn't, and it's the big different between him and the Tiger.

"Phil thinks he can make a game plan for everything, but then he runs into a day like this when you have to feel and battle your way through alien conditions. He just can't do that."

Meanwhile, Mickelson was giving his deadpan, almost comatose version of a day that he had never been able to contain, let alone control.

He said, "When I was six-over through six I didn't think it was that bad relative to what the field would do. I thought most guys would be two, three, four over through six holes. The back nine played a lot easier for me without the rain. The way I was playing I thought anything in the seventies would be a good score and I was able to do that, but I don't think it is going to hold up as well as I thought."

It didn't, as Mickelson's inspired journeyman compatriot Rocco Mediate, who was eventually operating in considerably softer air, came into the clubhouse 10 shots better.

Mickelson being Mickelson, he might well come out firing brilliantly this afternoon, but the essential truth is unlikely to be disturbed over the next three days. It is that Phil Mickelson's game is not to be found on any British menu if the wind should happen to be high. It is not a moveable feast.

The golf psychologist Dr Karl Morris, credited with vital help in last week's breakthrough at the Scottish Open by Graeme McDowell, who was cooking nicely again last night when he took a share of the clubhouse lead, sees Mickelson's plight as the result of the most basic of cultural divisions.

"Birkdale yesterday was a different world to the one Mickelson shines in. It wasn't dartboard golf, it wasn't hitting the ball high and knowing that you were the only one influencing it. It was driving low, under the wind. It was shaping so many different kinds of shots under a different kind of pressure. It was something Tom Watson learnt in his great years in the Open, and something Tiger Woods has come to terms with."

Mickelson, so plainly, has not. Yesterday's round was his ninth here in three Opens. His previous two, in 1998, were 85 and 78. Overall, he is 45 over par.

His last words before leaving the course were: "I don't think anyone will shoot even and if that's the case I'm only eight shots back with three rounds to go, so a good solid round tomorrow will get me back into it."

One of Mickelson's practice aids on the putting green is to put a ring of balls around the hole and then move in a circle while striking each of them. One expert's view: "It looks rather like an Apache war dance." Last night, though, the world's No 2 player was not exactly generating much menace. But then, away from the American reservation he so rarely does.

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