Phil Mickelson in love with Open
GULLANE, Scotland -- Phil Mickelson, heartbreak kid, has his chance to even an old score in the most unlikely place. Usually lost on this side of the ocean in a tangle of heather and gorse, Mickelson can exact revenge on the same golf gods who keep denying him the major he has coveted most.
The American who can't win his Open championship might get the last laugh by winning their Open Championship.
And wouldn't it be a perfectly Mickelsonian thing to do: placing second a record half-dozen times in his national championship, for the trophy he wants above all, before stealing the one Grand Slam event he was excused from ever seizing?
Mickelson fans had long ago written off the Open Championship as the low-trajectory cost of doing high-trajectory business. Air Phil forever struggled with the quirky ground game required in the UK, and sometimes he didn't look any more interested in figuring it out than a tennis player looks while tanking a set.
Phil had his multiple Masters titles, his PGA at Baltusrol and, of course, his desperate bid to extricate himself from Sam Snead-dom and the short list of accomplished Americans never to have won the U.S. Open.
But the Open Championship? To Phil's fans? It was almost as if it didn't really count, as if Arnold Palmer had never restored this tournament's former glory, as if Phil could claim his personal Mickel-slam without it.
"I used to hate it," Lefty conceded of links golf.
"And now I love it," he said.
Of course, Mickelson was only two days removed from his breakthrough victory in Europe and a wild climax at the Scottish Open that was Phil's career in a nutshell, complete with the gimme two-putt par on the 72nd hole that he turned into a bogey and the decisive playoff tap-in on the same hole after nearly dunking his chip for eagle.
So yeah, a month after his mini-meltdown at Merion, he's feeling pretty good about life at Muirfield.
"It's difficult to win the week before a major and then follow it up winning the major," Mickelson said in his news conference. "But then again, the last person to do it, you're looking at him."
Mickelson later reminded a smaller circle of reporters that in 2006 he "shellacked the field in Atlanta by 13 shots" before winning his second of three green jackets. But the theme of the day had nothing to do with his memorable Sundays in the States, and everything to do with his two top-10 finishes in 19 Open Championship appearances and his belief that he's finally solved the matrix.
In his attempt to qualify here in 1992, Mickelson started his first Scottish links round "by probably going seven or eight over those first nine holes" at North Berwick. He called it "a rude awakening" to the crosswinds and penal-colony rough that force accidental American tourists to hit fairways and abandon the practice of flying approach shots over trouble.
He finished 30th or worse in nine of his first 11 championships. In 2004, when Mickelson suddenly placed third, his short-game coach, Dave Pelz, helped him develop a low line-drive shot that hugged the ground and minimized his margin for error. That's when Phil decided his self-described "hate-love" relationship with links golf had found a permanent home in his heart.
Mickelson nearly won the Open Championship two years ago at Royal St. George's, where he said he played "the absolute best nine holes of golf I've ever played on the front nine," and in weather unfit for a Scottish shepherd. Mickelson didn't look or sound crushed after that loss to Darren Clarke like he has after his U.S. Open near-misses; in fact, he looked and sounded just happy (and surprised) to be there.
"Oh, man," he said afterward, "that was some of the most fun I've had competitively."
Going back to his childhood days of hitting wedge shots over his house and tall trees onto a kidney-shaped green in his backyard, Mickelson has always tried having fun with an impossibly difficult game. As a 9-year-old he watched the daring Seve Ballesteros win the 1980 Masters before shouting at his mother, "That's going to be me someday. I'm going to walk up like that, and people are going to be cheering me."
People have cheered Mickelson's go-for-broke style, even if it's cost him a major or three. They have appreciated his creative side, his willingness to let his imagination run wild, even if that approach somehow hasn't matched up with the major (this one) that demands creativity and imagination like no other.
In his Monday practice round, with his ball resting on a grassy upslope and with his back facing the 17th pin, Mickelson hit a Meadowlark Lemon shot, a high pop-up wedge into the wind that flew high over his head and landed some seven feet from the hole.
"I love the shots we get to hit over here," he said.
There's that word again: love. The hate is gone from his Open Championship bag along with his driver, which has no place at Muirfield. Mickelson has fallen hard for an X-Hot 3-wood that has given him more peace of mind on the tee, and more reason to believe he can win here on back-to-back Sundays.
Players were eager to congratulate Mickelson for his first victory in Europe, including Thomas Bjorn, who once said he expected Phil to be "a 10-major guy." Today's Phil is a four-major guy who thinks he's found the secret to his own putting problems, a secret he wouldn't divulge.
So be it. This much is already clear: Much like an NFL cornerback who gets burned and burned and keeps coming back for more, Mickelson isn't afraid to have his heart broken all over again. He proved it at Merion, throwing himself into the fire, and he might prove it again at Muirfield.
No, Mickelson doesn't look at the Open Championship as a necessary evil anymore. He burns to win it, but conceded "I do need some luck."
It would be a hell of a story if he got a lucky bounce after the golf gods tormented him at the other Open back home. Payback is a pitch, or a putt, or a hard ground ball that renders the British winds moot.
Whatever the method, Lefty could make a lot of things right by winning the major he once loathed.