Mickelson finds himself in major mode once more

The Green Jacket is alone in the trophy cabinet. James Corrigan hears plans to change that
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The Independent Online

"My goal is to try to compete the best I can in the majors, because last year was really a breakthrough year for me," Mickelson said. "And not just because of the win at Augusta but because when I prepared properly for the other three tournaments I put in some of my best performances in the majors. I had never had a top-10 finish at the British Open and I only missed the play-off by one. I have a distinct gameplan now."

And like everything about Mickelson, it is also unique. It would all have started in earnest last Sunday when he and his two coaches, Rick Smith and Dave Pelz, first made their way to St Andrews for one of their "practice" rounds that have become the stuff of legend.

With the three of them making impromptu huddles as they tapped their genius together to discover the secrets of the Old Course, the round would have taken somewhere in the region of six hours, seven if it was anything like the marathon they undertook at Pinehurst last month. Not the ideal three-ball to get stuck behind. "Yeah, I've been over there with Rick and Dave and we had a good bit of practice," he said, not giving too much away. "My game felt really good coming into these two weeks. It felt sharp."

Strange then, that it has looked decidedly blunt at the Scottish Open in the intervening period, his very ordinary 71 yesterday summing up a very ordinary week. The feeling is that Mickelson is simply going through the motions and his mind, like his gameplan, is already on the east coast. So why exactly is he bothering, then, and why isn't he taking the time out, like Tiger Woods, to sharpen his swing and his instinct away from the public glare?

"It's a matter of personal preference," he explained. "I found that when I first came out on tour I thought that was the way to do it. I had a conversation with Jack Nicklaus, who liked to take the week before off and get ready, and I tried it a bunch of times, but it just didn't work that well for me.

"I found that if I played the week before I was in a better frame of mind competitively, fresh and sharp, and when Thursday comes around I've only had three days of competitive golf off as opposed to 10 or 11, so that seems to get me a little more focused on the round at hand."

It sounds great in theory and indeed, was so last year in practice. But this year the nearly man has yet to become the yearly man we all expected after winning that first, elusive, major.

In fact, Mickelson has looked more the surly man as his 10th place in the Masters was followed by a mini-collapse at Pinehurst that led to a wholly unsatisfactory tie for 33rd. "It's funny, because it's been a good year in a lot of ways," he said, "but unfortunately where I want to play really well is at the majors. That hasn't happened yet as it did in 2004."

There has been more than the odd flash of Lefty's undoubted brilliance, however, never more so than when losing out to Tiger Woods in a classic showdown at Doral in March that pushed the two biggest talents in golf to the outer limits of perfection. If anything, Mickelson was dragged too far, shellshocked that his A-game wasn't quite good enough to see off Woods's own Sunday best. He insists, though, that any feeling of inferiority that may very well have lingered from that duel was not triggered by any personal animosity.

"Look, I know what's been written," he asserts, "but I think that we have a really good relationship and that there's respect and we enjoy each other's company. We enjoy each other's company in the Ryder Cups, the Presidents Cups and the times we see each other. Obviously we live 3,000 miles away, but even if we didn't, big deal, it's nice to be on the golf course and have that head-to-head competition, and off the course be able to enjoy each other's company."

It is superstar company that Mickelson is right to feel comfortable with on the course, but one that he bafflingly still struggles to cope with off it, despite him being one of the most recognisable faces in American sport.

"I don't really look at myself like that, I guess. When I think of a celebrity I think of guys who are in movies and in Hollywood. I play golf for a living and I've got a wonderful family and we have a lot of time away where we're able to just be ourselves and not be interrupted. I don't consider myself at that level quite yet."

A second major in Fife would undoubtedly help transport him there, and the new Mickelson has clearly taken plenty from his long-awaited graduation to the major ranks. "People ask me what the Masters victory gave me," he said. "Well, one perk is that I haven't heard the question, 'Who is the best player in the world never to win a major?' for a while.

"But does it make winning more majors easier? Well, I think that it might, although obviously it's never easy to win one of the big four. But the pressure might be a little bit less, not having the uncertainty of wondering where I'll ever be able to do it. So being able to come through when I needed to did give me a little bit of extra confidence, yes."

It's hardly a war cry, although in this studious mood, Mickelson will never again see the worth in issuing one of those. He has learnt to prepare. His perspiration is at last some sort of match for his inspiration.