Open-minded Mickelson has the will to win

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The Independent Online

Blasting himself into contention was never much of a problem for the old Phil Mickelson. With all the precision timing of a Nasa space shuttle he would launch his major mission bang on cue, turbos blazing, the countdown ringing in his ears, orbit awaiting, next stop a destination that only a handful who populate Planet Golf will ever reach.

Blasting himself into contention was never much of a problem for the old Phil Mickelson. With all the precision timing of a Nasa space shuttle he would launch his major mission bang on cue, turbos blazing, the countdown ringing in his ears, orbit awaiting, next stop a destination that only a handful who populate Planet Golf will ever reach.

He would never quite get there, of course, the fires fizzling out just when the atmosphere got critical. Winning one of the four that really matter seemed an alien concept to Mickelson. But then came Augusta 2004 and everything changed.

The nearly man was no more; now we have the yearly man, who looks like he has another big one in him every time he tees it up. Victory at Georgia, runner-up at Shinnecock Hills in the US Open, Mickelson is now a major performer - perhaps the major performer - in every sense.

Royal Troon has been an extension of this formline, despite that pesky stat that whispers to anyone who will believe it that the 34-year-old from California has never finished better than a tie for 11th in his 11 Open Championships to date. For a shot-making craftsman who could comfortably wear "Innovation" as a middle name, that is a baffling detail indeed.

Especially when you witnessed the back nine of his 68 yesterday that owed everything to patience, nerve and guile, three words not associated with Mickelson before Augusta. But that green jacket has proved to be more like a bullet-proof vest, making him impervious to the tedious criticism that he just did not possess the balls necessary to win a major.

Well, if it's balls you want then Mickelson seems to have discovered a driving range's supply of the damned things. Being freed of the burden of expectation has unarguably lifted a huge weight from those chiselled shoulders. The smile is now as constant as the swing plane, the belief that, yes, he can favour caution and, no, he doesn't have to shoot at everything he sees is the defining difference in his game.

For instance, after an opening 73 here many would have thought that old Lefty would not have been up for the fight. But new Lefty came out firing. A day's-best five-under 66 on Friday put his name back into the picture. And yesterday the southpaw framed it with a round of three under to take him to six under overall and within two of Todd Hamilton's lead. It seems that it may take more than the squalls starting to whip up here last night to blow Mickelson off course.

While blustery yesterday, the higher winds had again swerved past the Ayrshire coast. The result was that birdies were the order of the day early on and Mickelson tucked in. Three behind the overnight leader, Skip Kendall, Mickelson got off to the flyer he craved by holing an eight-footer for birdie on the first.

Four under soon became five on the second as a chip to within two feet raised his name into the top 10 for the first time. Par followed par at the third, fourth, fifth and sixth, but Mickelson conjured a red figure again with a birdie on the par-four seventh before making pars at the eighth, ninth and 10th.

The latter in particular proved just why the vagaries of links should suit Mickelson's game. A tee-shot bounded off into rough and from there the ball, thrown on a gust, could only find a tricky spot near the deep stuff at the bottom of the slope to the right of the green.

No matter, a flop-chip was beautifully manoeuvred to within three feet; par saved, A similar thing happened on the 11th, with a similar outcome. On the 15th his powers of recovery were brought even more to the fore as he came off the verge of a path to make par.

He confessed he was fortunate to avoid going out of bounds there, having hit a spectator's leg. "Hey, you take what you can get," he said. "But it was a very lucky break, that's for sure. I thought it was gone." Another save on the 17th was capped by an extraordinary second on the last when he somehow found the green from the thick greenery. Mickelson has not dropped a shot here in 37 holes, which is some accomplishment on some course.

"I'm usually watching The Open leaders coming in on the television," he said. "So it's going to be fun to be in the final groups here. What's different this year? I don't know. None of the pars I have made have felt that difficult because I've been putting the ball in places where I know I can get up and down. I don't feel I have to hit the perfect shot." Once a perfectionist, now a pragmatist. That's bad news for everyone else here today.

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