Mickelson marvels at his major change - Golf - Sport - The Independent

Mickelson marvels at his major change

US Open: So often the nearly man, the Masters champion is suddenly a different golfer on the grand occasions

The thing about the US Open is that you can take it to a town called Southampton, in a county called Suffolk, and play it on an exposed course looking deceptively like a British links complete with sea mists and, supposedly, variable winds, but it is impossible to remove its inherent US Open-ness. "It might look like the British Open," Phil Mickelson said, "but it plays like the US Open."

The thing about the US Open is that you can take it to a town called Southampton, in a county called Suffolk, and play it on an exposed course looking deceptively like a British links complete with sea mists and, supposedly, variable winds, but it is impossible to remove its inherent US Open-ness. "It might look like the British Open," Phil Mickelson said, "but it plays like the US Open."

Why else would the leaderboard at the halfway stage contain the names of straight hitters and good putters such as Fred Funk and Jeff Maggert, not to mention Retief Goosen, a former winner, while the challenge from Europe has floundered despite the venue being the closest to those across the pond?

Sergio Garcia was level par after 36 holes but trailed Mickelson and Shigeki Maruyama by six strokes. History records Tony Jacklin as the only European winner of the US Open since 1927, while Garcia was already labouring under the curse that prevents anyone from winning the Buick Classic and America's national championship in successive weeks.

Mickelson, of course, cursed himself by taking an ultra-attacking approach when major championships, and particularly the US Open, call for sensible course management, relentless resolve and heaps of patience. When the 34-year-old left-hander, who has more talent than he knows what to do with, starts being compared to Bernhard Langer then you know something special is happening.

The Masters champion was amused to be the centre of speculation concerning the grand slam when prior to Augusta people wondered if he would ever win one major. It is early days yet but at least Mickelson appears to have figured out what is required to win at this level. Asked if he was now playing boring golf, he replied: "But the results are okay."

Mickelson added: "I didn't have a sense of relief after the Masters. What I have felt is a sense of excitement and anticipation. I can't wait for the upcoming majors now." As he had done prior to the Masters, Mickelson spent three days last week practising at the course with his swing coach, Rick Smith, and the short-game expert, Dave Pelz, working on the shots required for the venue and especially on the shots from 150 yards and in.

The preparation is paying off and with the gallery roaring him on, as they did when he was the runner-up at another Long Island venue, Bethpage State Park, two years ago, the sheepish grin was naturally in evidence. It was more of a smile-to-smile contest yesterday as his playing partner was the engaging Maruyama.

As Ernie Els said of his Presidents Cup team-mate: "Shigeki was great, always smiling, always laughing. I didn't quite understand what he said but when he smiles, you smile with him. He is a good guy, he has a good heart." Els is also in contention this week, having made four birdies in a row on Friday afternoon, although there was a collective holding of breath, not least by his caddie Ricci Roberts, when the South African was three over par after three holes on Thursday morning. He then did what he does best. "I played golf," he said. "I kept plugging away." A 67 left Els three behind Mickelson and Maruyama and paired in the third round with Vijay Singh, a further shot behind and notable not for the birdies he has made but the bogeys he has not.

Without the wind that blew in practice the course was as benign as it could be on Friday. Mickelson, Goosen and Funk all scored 66s and somehow Tiger Woods shot a 69. At another time in his career Woods would also have taken advantage of mastering what is a mouth-watering course, but these days the minor miracles that punctuate his rounds seem to be solely concerned with saving par. The 18th hole, his ninth, was a prime example.

He drove into the right rough, squirted the ball out with all his might into the left rough and then did the bit no one else can do by hitting his next from 78 yards to a foot from the pin, the ball taking one hop forward on the rock-hard green and then checking on the second bounce. But at seven behind with 36 holes to play, Woods, without a major since the 2002 US Open, was reduced to praying for the wind to blow. "You have to keep hanging in there and moving forward because it is going to be difficult for the leaders to go extremely low on the weekend," he said.

Lee Westwood, starting birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey, and Padraig Harrington set out to try and make up ground on Garcia yesterday but only seven of the 19 Europeans in the field made the cut. For all Darren Clarke's hard work, he has now failed to qualify at both of this season's majors while Paul Casey could not repeat the relaxed formula from the Masters. Justin Rose, the halfway leader at Augusta, got his demise in early and crashed out with rounds of 77 and 78. "I knew I needed a good start in the second round and when that didn't happen it was tough to keep the adrenaline going," Rose said. Nick Faldo, who qualified for the championship, had a 70 on Friday but the damage was done by an opening 81.

David Duval, the 2001 Open champion, finished his first tournament for eight months at 25 over par but said he was "anxious to play again". His next event is likely to be next month's Open. "If nothing changes, I'll be at Troon but I don't know if I'll play before then," he said.

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