Mickelson makes light of Tiger's absence

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The Independent Online

"Will it really count?" That is the question everyone who is anyone in golf will hear in the run-up to next week's Open at Royal Birkdale and yesterday at Loch Lomond two rather important competitors were pressed for their opinions.

Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson happen to be two of the most high-profile members of that exclusive club who have won majors in which Tiger Woods has played, although the similarity stops there when it comes to their views on whether some of the sheen might be taken off the Claret Jug this year because of the world No 1's absence due to knee surgery. Mickelson thinks it won't; Els suspects it probably will. Let the debate begin.

The South African was first up, strolling into the press room at the Scottish Open – which begins today – and talking with admirable honesty about a subject he must already be sick of. "The best player of this generation is not there and whoever is going to win next week is going to have to answer questions of 'Do you think you would have beaten Tiger if he was here?'" said Els. "Yet, although we will miss him The Open will be played whether Tiger is there or not. That's what we've got to realise."

Mickelson agreed with that last point, but feels any queries over the Birkdale champion's credibility would be wrong. "If you look back at Jack Nicklaus's 18 majors or Tom Watson's eight, I don't look back at the field they played, I just look back at the tournaments they've won," said the world No 2. "I do think it opens an opportunity for a number of players to come through and maybe win tournaments that they might not have won. But I haven't won a major in a couple of years and it would certainly mean just as much to me to win an Open Championship."

In contrast to Els, Mickelson has yet to prevail in the British major, so his eagerness is perfectly understandable. On Tuesday, he completed his traditionally meticulous scrutiny of the venue and is clearly confident that this is the year he redresses his dismal run in The Open. In 15 attempts he has one top 10 finish to his name and, even more embarrassingly, just two top 20s.

"I arrived on Sunday morning at Birkdale and spent three days over there," he said. "You know, throughout my career I have not been as effective in the wind as I would like to be. About four years ago I learned how to hit shots lower and take spin off it. That's when I started to play better in the wind. I played better at Troon that year [2004] and missed the play-off by a shot. Birkdale is an amazing course and I have fond memories of it because it was the first Open I ever played, as an amateur, in 1991.

"It's one of the better courses in the UK. It's a very fair, fun, difficult test. I saw it in three different conditions; calm, very windy and kind of a medium breeze. I think it's going to be a wonderful championship because the course is in immaculate shape."

For some reason, Mickelson neglected to reveal that his last two competitive rounds on the Southport links were an 85 and a 78 in the 1998 Open, although perhaps he was simply concentrating on his Scottish task in hand. The immediate challenge at the Loch is for the 38-year-old to win his first professional title of any description on British soil. Last year, Mickelson bogeyed the last – twice – to lose out in a play-off to the unheralded Frenchman Gregory Havret after yet another erratic driving performance. He accepts there can be no repeat this time around as the field is better than ever, despite the unsatisfactory nature of this Open warm-up being held on a course about as far removed from a links setting as it is possible to imagine.

Not only is Els chasing the £500,000 first prize, but also the world No 3, Adam Scott. Inevitably, there is a strong British contingent featuring the in-form Englishmen Lee Westwood and Ross Fisher, who won the European Open last weekend, and the resurgent Colin Montgomerie. The Scottish favourite knows this place only too well having won here in 1999 – and having married here in April. One of the par-threes should be particularly familiar.

"Some of the guests played a round on the morning of the wedding, and I played one hole with each group – the eighth," he said. "I managed to have 14 pars and four birdies, so if I ever bogey that hole I'm in big trouble. I think I'd have to walk off."

You could almost hear the golfing gods cackle as Monty said it.