PADRAIG Harrington put ladybirds in the Claret Jug. Darren Clarke filled it with Guinness. Phil Mickelson, the trophy’s most recent winner, showed rather more expensive taste after his victory at Muirfield 12 months ago by quaffing from it some 1990 Romanee-Conti.
It was a far cry from Mickelson’s Masters win of 2010, when he rolled up to a Krispy Creme doughnuts drive-through wearing his newly-acquired green jacket. That was before he was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a condition that has prompted him to refrain from sugary food and fizzy drinks.
When he showed up at Royal Liverpool yesterday for this year’s Open Championship, the 44-year-old American – who will begin his defence alongside Ernie Els and Bubba Watson in Thursday’s first round – admitted that only “good stuff” had been allowed in golf’s most prestigious trophy as he took it on its customary world tour.
Showing off his prized possession to family, friends and anyone who cared to take a look has been emotional, even more so than wearing the green jacket. “It’s been a really fun year with the Jug,” he said. “Everybody had a chance to drink out of it or hold it and take pictures with it. There’s not really much you’re going to do with the jacket other than pull on the lapels.”
It helps, of course, that the Open Championship is the oldest and most prestigious competition in golf, and that Mickelson had waited so long to win it. Before his victory in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart seven days earlier, the winner of three Masters and a PGA title had struggled to make an impression on links golf.
“What made this Open Championship so emotional for me was the challenges I had to overcome to accomplish that victory. Challenges of learning links golf over the course of my career, coming over here only a couple of weeks a year. Not having grown up here, I had to learn it during my professional years. That’s why it brought out so much emotion for me.”
His success at Muirfield was sealed with a masterful finish. Having started the day five shots off the lead, he covered the final six holes in four-under-par, which was good enough to win by three strokes. Now, when his confidence needs a boost, he watches a video of that inspired, closing sequence.
The last 12 months have been a struggle for Mickelson. Labouring with a wretched putting stroke, he has not secured a top-ten finish since Abu Dhabi in January, although there were signs of a recovery in last week’s Aberdeen Asset management Scottish Open, where he finished with a six-under-par 65.
“I’m not discouraged,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had some good breakthroughs in some areas. I know I haven’t played well, but the parts feel a lot better than the whole right now. I don’t know when it will all click together but it should be soon. I feel like it’s really close to being good.”
Armed with a 2-iron that he uses only for this month of the year, Mickelson expects Hoylake to be a different challenge from 2006, when Tiger Woods, the eventual winner, used a driver just once.
On a lusher, more receptive course, he intends to be more aggressive around the greens, which suits his game.
Mickelson will also be free of the pressure that preceded his breakthrough 12 months ago. “It’s a different feeling for me coming over here now having won this tournament. The way I felt was, ‘am I ever going to come through and break through and play well on links golf and win an Open Championship?’ Now I know that I can. I know that I’ve done it and it takes a lot of pressure off me. But more than that, when I arrive as a past champion, it just feels terrific.”