Phil Mickelson certainly looked like he had come prepared for a fight yesterday as he arrived in the media centre with blood dripping from his head. As it turned out the American had merely scratched himself, but still the image seemed pertinent. For a top-two finish in the Scottish Open this week would mean Mickelson was no longer just another contender but the undisputed No 1.
Of course, this will not be the first time he has had the chance to usurp Tiger Woods at the top the rankings. Indeed, since Mickelson won his third Masters title in April – and since Woods's game has descended into as much turmoil as his personal life – every tournament he has entered has dangled that golden carrot. Yet golf is all about timing and this week the alarm is fairly blaring in Mickelson's ear.
Imagine how Woods would feel if he arrived for the first official day of practice for the Open at St Andrews next Monday without the beloved moniker he has held for more than five years. Imagine if he had to peer across at the golfer who has long been described as his nemesis and think to himself "there is my supposed superior". Suddenly the Old Course may not seem Woods' "favourite place on earth", suddenly it may not seem "the most tranquil place on earth". It would give the Open an even greater piquancy as Woods tried to salvage not only his reputation but also his tag as world's best.
Of course, Mickelson was not about to get into any of that malarkey yesterday. Like any pro he has become robotically-trained to state his intention of keeping his mind "in the moment". "World No 1 would be cool but it's not something I think about yet," said the 40-year-old who has never been closer in the rankings. "I'm just trying to get my game sharp." Later, when quizzed exactly what it would mean, he replied. "I have a great answer for you. But let's talk about that Sunday night."
In truth, it does not take a clairvoyant to figure the resonance. After all, this was a man who once, while getting out of a hotel lift, turned to Woods and said: "I am not your bitch". The pair's relationship nowadays is far, far warmer than it was back then, but believe it: this would mean everything. And it is why anyone and everyone interested in golf should take the high road this week to see if he can at the very least replicate his previous best finish in this event of a play-off defeat to Grégory Havret three years ago.
Alas, many of the pros have snubbed the Loch and its £2.8m purse to undertake reconnaissance missions to St Andrews. Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald and Adam Scott (to name but six) are believed to be all teeing it up on the Old Course today and the joke doing the rounds yesterday was that there would be more members of the world top 10 playing in a Fife fourball than in the entirety of this 156-man field.
Only Mickelson and Ernie Els represent that elite group here, although there are competitors of the calibre of the US Open champion Graeme McDowell, Vijay Singh and the Japanese wonderkid Ryo Ishikawa. All will be ignoring the long-accepted fact that in terms of familiarising their game to the Open venue, Loch Lomond is akin to playing a clay-court event before Wimbledon. "The best way to get into playing condition for the Open is to get into contention and compete for the tile on Sunday here," said Mickelson.
"Well, what else is he going to say?" or so the critics will mutter. In Barclays, Mickelson happens to share the same sponsor as the Scottish Open and playing on the boggy banks has not exactly helped him in the past, as his best finish in the Open is a third place six years ago. But there is clearly something just as tangible as greenback on offer. While Woods spends time with his children and keeps his jet on the tarmac at home – as he waits to fly back to Britain on Sunday after returning from the JP McManus Pro-Am on Tuesday night – Mickelson is fuelled up and ready to go. No 1, your time may well be up.Reuse content