For someone who plays with the flair and flamboyance of Seve Ballesteros, it is a mystery why Phil Mickelson has failed to win the Open Championship. This is his 20th tilt at getting his hands on the Claret Jug since his first appearance in 1991 and only three times has he finished inside the top 20. His best years were when he finished runner-up to Darren Clarke at Royal St George’s in 2011 and third in 2004 after missing by one shot the play-off in which Todd Hamilton defeated Ernie Els.
But maybe all that bad luck is about to change for the 43-year-old Californian. He won the Scottish Open last week on the links at Castle Stuart in Inverness and has never felt so good coming into an Open Championship. “Certainly you need a bit of luck to come out on top here,” he said. “It’s part of the tournament. But you also need to play some great golf. These last few months I’v e played well enough to get in contention here. But I do need some luck.”
Perhaps it is the roll-the-dice-and-see-what-you-get element of links golf that explains Mickelson’s turbulent career battling to understand this ancient art form of the game. How would he describe his relationship with links golf? “It’s a hate/love one,” he said. “ I used to hate it and now I love it.”
The hate turned to love in 2004 when he and his coach Dave Pelz spent time in Scotland developing how to hit the ball low under the wind and how to avoid those big misses when the ball gets caught in crosswinds and is tossed 50 yards off the fairway into deep heather. “It’s a low little scooting shot,” he said. Why does he love links golf now? “Because it’s much easier to get the ball in play off the tee,” he said. Yep, that would do it. “What I’ve enjoyed most about links golf is the importance of the short game,” he said. “In America, we just fly the ball over the trouble to the hole and stop it. Here, angle off the tee, angle into the green is every bit as important as the execution of the shot.” As such he’s ditching his driver this week and adding a 64-degree wedge instead.
There were two other factors that Mickelson identified as vital to his success this week. The first was the rough. “The key to the rough is staying out of it,” he said. That was Phil being funny. The second was his putting. “I’ve kind of keyed in on something and I don’t really want to share it,” he said. “I’m not going to discuss it.” That was Phil being spiky. But he did at least reveal that he blames his putting for his Open misfortunes. “I’ve not putted these greens well with little subtle nuances and rolls with the crosswinds that come into play as well as the strong blades of fescue grass,” he said. “But I’m starting to putt as well as I ever have. Finally I believe I have found the secret.”
It would be typical of Mickelson’s luck if winning the Scottish Open last week prevented him from winning this week. “It’s difficult to win the week before a major and then follow it up winning the major,” he said. “But then again, the last person to do it? You’re looking at him.” Mickelson won the BellSouth Classic in 2006 then won the Masters the following Sunday. If the four-times major champion can win his first Open and complete a Scottish double, perhaps he could celebrate in time-honoured local fashion.