Mickelson left with a hollow feeling

Today was supposed to be a day of historic importance. Of course, it still will be, just not for Phil Mickelson. Once the American won the Masters in April, following his victory at the US PGA Championship last summer, he was halfway to what was dubbed a potential "Mickelslam".

Hoylake witnessed Bobby Jones's victory in The Open during his 1930 Grand Slam season and at the same venue Mickelson was meant to join Tiger Woods as the only men to hold all four modern major titles at the same time. Could've, would've, should've.

Nothing is guaranteed in golf but after 71 holes of the US Open the dream was still alive. Six shots later it was all over after a miserable closing double bogey. But the 36-year-old is an optimistic soul and his preparations for The Open started almost immediately.

Within a week he had played his first two practice rounds and signed the Royal Liverpool Golf Club visitors' book. He returned more than a week in advance of Thursday's start. His game plan was forged with his coaches, Rick Smith and Dave Pelz. There were eight practice rounds in total, plus a Wednesday visit to Royal Birkdale for light relief.

But, as at Winged Foot, execution proved an elusive quality. An opening 69 was a plausible start but the crux came on Friday afternoon. With Woods having vaulted to the top of the leaderboard, others had to set out in pursuit. Ernie Els responded in sublime manner to get within one but Mickelson floundered.

Apart from two weeks in April, in Atlanta and Augusta, Mickelson has not been at his best this season. Yet it is when the execution is not quite right that he seems to revert to the bad old ways, taking an extra chance or two, slashing away. Pelz could be found in a quiet corner of the media centre watching a monitor and shaking his head.

Woods may have eschewed the driver this week but you couldn't get it out of Mickelson's hands. At the third, where the internal out of bounds first looms, his drive finished on the bank, just in bounds. As a lefty he had an awkward stance but got a free drop because the ball was lying, according to the American referee, "in the seam of a sod".

At the next he pulled his drive over the gallery but got another free drop from a cart path. A spectator was not happy and queried the ruling but Mickelson laughed it off. "He didn't realise the follow-through is part of the swing and was affected by the path," he explained.

But despite a fine recovery pitch he could not make the putt for birdie and at the par-five fifth he drove into the rough, hit his second into a bunker and had to settle for a par again. Worse followed when his ragged play led to bogeys at the seventh, eighth and ninth.

By this stage his most important contribution of the day came walking up the second fairway with his playing partner, Greg Owen. The Englishman almost did not tee up after his back problems returned during the warm-up on the range. Owen spent 15 minutes in the physio van and had to take painkillers. "I was always going to start," he said. "I just didn't know if I could finish." As they chatted away, Mickelson all but gave Owen the number of one of the best back specialists in America, Tom Boers. "Phil said he could not recommend him highly enough," Owen said. "I'm used to playing hurt but I thought I was over the worst. Hopefully this guy can finally sort it out." Swinging within himself, Owen actually played very tidy golf. After what he called a "silly three-putt" at the second hole, he birdied the fourth and the fifth, as well as the 10th and the 11th, where he rolled in a putt from 60 feet.

Mickelson could only look on enviously. By this stage he knew his challenge was over. "I never holed those 15-20 footers you need to do around here," he said.

While Owen birdied the 16th and the 18th for a 68 that leaves the Coxmoor man on the fringes of contention today, Mickelson had gone back to level par before his first rewards of the day. He got a four at the 16th and at the last hit a hybrid two-iron to three feet for a closing eagle.

There was a worrying moment as Owen jumped out of a bunker at the last and slipped. He got up gingerly but Mickelson told him to take his time and not worry about standing on the line of the American's putt. "I haven't played well enough," Mickelson, who carded a 73 to fall back to three under, said.

"It's a great course, a great test, a great championship, it's going to be exciting, I just wish I was part of the leaders. I'd like to do a good round tomorrow, more for self-gratification than because it's going to move me up the leaderboard. I've certainly studied the course, I just need to hit the shots."

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