Mickelson assumes Tiger's mantle

The Troon effect: A big test awaits the player whose smile lit up Augusta. But he, not Woods, is the man to beat
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The Independent Online

So the burning question concerning Phil Mickelson at the 133rd Open Championship is: can he carry it off? Not the Claret Jug, he clearly has to be a main contender, but can he sustain his smile for 72 holes in a town on the west coast of Scotland where such behaviour is treated with grave suspicion?

Of course, it has worked for Mickelson in the first two majors of the year, and he was roared to victory at the Masters and into second place at the US Open by American fans who have come to adore the Californian. A certain earnest endeavour is more the thing around a place like Royal Troon, but that does not necessarily mean dour, as anywhere that has seen a victory by Arnold Palmer is not entirely immune to genuine charisma.

Palmer started a streak of five successive winners from the United States triumphing at Troon and, all trivialities aside, Mickelson has become the player to beat when the majors come round. It is still slightly difficult to reconcile that the vastly talented left-hander has swapped roles with Tiger Woods, but the world No 1 has paid the penalty for failing to get the ball in play consistently enough.

That was always Mickelson's failing when the test was at its highest, but his game has become a lot tighter this season. If he is to become the sixth American winner in a row - Justin Leonard was the victor last time at Troon in 1997 - Mickelson will have to contend at The Open for the first time. His best result to date is 11th at St Andrews in 2000, when Woods was streets ahead of second place, let alone nine places lower.

But the 34-year-old has finally reined in his ultra-aggressive approach and says he is more comfortable now with hitting the ball with less spin and keeping it lower in the wind. A player with a great imagination around the greens was always thought to be a good shot for The Open; now Mickelson might get himself into a position to take advantage.

Missing the cut at the Scottish Open should not be relevant. "He's not going to think about it," Ernie Els said of Mickelson. "Water off his back." Instead, Mickelson gave himself more time to practise at Troon and develop a strategy. He practised at Augusta and Shinnecock Hills prior to the Masters and the US Open, the old Jack Nicklaus trick, and prefers that to the six-and-a-half-hour practice rounds on the days at the start of the major championship weeks.

Such is Mickelson's focus on the majors he may quit for the season after the Ryder Cup. "I haven't taken much time off this year, because when I'm not at tournaments I have been spending a lot more time preparing," he said.

If Woods is doing as much preparation for the majors as he used to it has not exactly shown on the course. He has not won any of the last eight but, more strangely, has only had a chance to win two. One was The Open last year at Royal St George's - won by the American Ben Curtis - but even there Tiger was not firing on all cylinders.

He lost a ball with his opening tee-shot and it is his starts that have caused problems. On the eight times he has won a major, Woods started with no worse than 70. In the last eight majors, he done no better than 70, and has a high of 76.

One of the distractions from the US Open has been resolved as Tiger phoned his former coach Butch Harmon, not to re-employ him but at least to bury the hatchet.

What will also help Woods, and should make for an intriguing championship is that a dry spring has left the rough tricky but hardly voracious. "It's a factor but it's not going to kill you,"said Els. "It's rained for the last two weeks in London and I thought we were going to see something brutal, but it is fair. It is a normal set-up, not tricked up."

So it is to be hoped that there will be no repeat of the scenes at Shinnecock, when the course got close to unplayable on the final day. Certainly for Els, who had a last round of 80. It came at the end of a run of six tournaments in a row - partly because the South African, for reasons he was mysterious about, has to play more than the usual 15 in the States.

But during that run he won the Memorial and would have displaced Tiger at the top of the rankings with victory at Shinnecock. "Those six weeks were important," he said. "I had a chance to go No 1 but it ended with an 80. Still, it was an easy course, wasn't it?"

Many will have His Sereneness (except, as happened at Loch Lomond on Friday, when a photographer is snapping Colin Montgomerie while he is playing) as a favourite, and rightly so.

There is a case to describe Vijay Singh as the best player in the world over the past two years, but the Fijian has not won a major in that time. The statute of limitations is about to run for Els, however, as it did for Woods at the US Open, but it is about time there was a repeat Open winner, the last man to get his name on the jug for a second time being Greg Norman 11 years ago. "Experience should help," Els said, "although it hasn't always lately."

Retief Goosen, by matching his countryman's two US Opens, stopped the run of first-time winners, but the last nine majors have been won by different people, which is a little too democratic for some tastes.

If the cigars have been spread around, none seem to have ended up between the lips of a European, it being five years since Paul Lawrie won at Carnoustie. Sergio Garcia should be a contender and, of course, it was at Troon that Darren Clarke was in the shake-up seven years ago. No doubt he has a favourite Havana ready, while Padraig Harrington should make it a double Irish challenge. The last five winners in America have been current or former European Tour members and Stephen Ames, the Western Open champion, is a solid player in the wind.

And Colin Montgomerie? Amid throes of divorce he finally triumphs on his home course. That only happens in Hollywood, surely?