Phil Mickelson in rough as questions go out of bounds

Phil Mickelson hits his tee shot on the ninth hole during yesterday's pro'am at Gullane. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty
Phil Mickelson hits his tee shot on the ninth hole during yesterday's pro'am at Gullane. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty
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PHIL MICKELSON has always possessed creative ability on the course when it comes to getting himself out of trouble. Off it he is as savvy as any, astute in his understanding of how the media works and well aware of good public relations.

So before yesterday’s press conference started he was all homely charm as he attempted to stave off controversy.

We don’t agree with the comments yet are appreciative of what Trump’s done

Phil Mickelson

He knew that there would be questions on last week’s ESPN report which linked around $3m of his money to a gambling scandal in his homeland. “I probably won’t say anything but feel free [to try] because I know you all have editors and have to ask questions.”

Given the way he hung his US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson out to dry the last time he was in Scotland, after the US lost emphatically to Europe at Gleneagles, he anticipated that would be revisited. But what he hadn’t envisaged were the questions relating to Donald Trump and the thorny issue of drugs.

In light of the decision taken to move the PGA Grand Slam of Golf event away from Trump Los Angeles as a consequence of the wannabe US president’s controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants, Mickelson was asked if golf should try to distance itself further from the businessman, making it difficult to take the Open to his course in Aberdeen.

“OK, you’re stumping me now with all these questions off-topic. I don’t know what to say,” said Mickelson. “I hope that politics doesn’t come into golf. It’s unfortunate that it has, because I think that golf course and many of his properties are just wonderful to play. I think we were all disappointed to hear his comments. Yet, it doesn’t take away from all that he has done to try to better golf and take these properties, turn them around and make them prosperous.

“It puts everybody in an awkward situation because we don’t agree with the comments yet we are appreciative of what he has done to help promote golf. That puts everybody in a tough spot.”

Mickelson, winner of the 2013 Scottish Open, likes to think of this week’s event as a fairly relaxing reintroduction to links golf. In the past it was a chance to acclimatise to Scotland without being pushed so hard that he was drained ahead of the real test at the Open Championship itself. He admitted that the nomadic aspect of the Scottish Open has made it more of a mental challenge than it used to be but, yesterday, thanks to Trump, drugs, gambling, Watson and even Jordan Speith, he faced as many cerebral conundrums in the media room as he did during his first outing on the Gullane course.

He pretty much managed to body-swerve the gambling issue and straight-batted the questions on Speith’s decision to contest the John Deere event at home rather than fine tune his links play. On the subject of Watson, though, he was less comfortable. He had made a statement at the start of proceedings stating that Watson was one of the greatest champions the game had ever had and added that he hoped the Open at St Andrews would be a celebration of his greatness. “I am certainly appreciative of all that he has done for the game of golf and that’s all I really want to say,” said Mickelson.

But when pressed on whether they had made peace in the wake of his criticism of Watson’s Ryder Cup captaincy, the perma-smile slipped slightly. His pre-emptive tactics had failed.

“Well, it doesn’t... ah, good question. I view him as a great champion. I look at him as one of the best players the game has ever seen and I look at him with a lot of respect in that regard. In 2009 when he almost won [the Open, at Turnberry], I was pulling as hard as anybody. I thought it was one of the greatest stories in the history of any sport; I would have cherished a Watson victory there. I hope he plays well next week. Again he’s one of the greatest champions the game has ever seen. I’d like him to have a special week, and I know people will treat him like the great champion he is.”

It was an awkward moment for a man unfamiliar with having to atone for ill-judged public utterances and he was more at ease addressing the other thorny topic of the three-month ban meted out to Scott Stallings after he turned himself in for imbibing a banned substance. Mickelson was sympathetic.

“They test for synthetic testosterone and he was taking something that increases the testosterone,” he said. “I eat potatoes for the simple reason that it’s the only food I know that helps increase your testosterone levels so does that mean I am violating the policy? No, but we are both kind of doing the same thing in increasing the testosterone levels for energy. We are just doing it in slightly different ways.

“I give Scott a lot of credit for coming forth. He is not trying to hide anything, he made a mistake and was very open and honest about it. But I don’t think the rights that every other citizen has, to take something over the counter to help their own personal health, should be taken away because we play golf. He was, in my opinion, trying to help his overall health and doing something that every other citizen in the country has a right to do. That right was taken away from him because he plays golf for a living and I don’t necessarily agree with that.”