MICKELSON’S enjoyed showing off the Open trophy almost as much as he now relishes playing links golf, he tells John Huggan
IT IS one of the most enduring and certainly most endearing images of golf during 2013. In the immediate aftermath of victory in the Open Championship at Muirfield, Phil Mickelson could remove neither the smile from his face nor his hand from golf’s most iconic trophy, the Old Claret Jug. He may already have won four majors, but this one clearly meant the most to the then 43-year-old Californian. This one was for him.
Which is understandable. Until seven days before he traversed the last six holes of the famous East Lothian links in a remarkable four under par – what he calls the “best I have ever played” – there were always a couple of asterisks or “buts” when it came to analysing Mickelson’s otherwise stellar career. He hadn’t won anything of real significance outside the cosseted and too-often one-dimensional confines of the PGA Tour. And his record of futility in the Open was, for one so naturally gifted and creative, both a mystery and a near embarrassment.
No more though. At least until tonight, Mickelson can claim to be both the reigning Scottish Open champion as well as the holder of golf’s most coveted title. Any nagging doubts about the completeness of his curriculum vitae have been well and truly dispelled. The game’s best-ever left-hander might not have a bucket, spade or “Kiss Me Quick” hat in his golf bag, but he now feels like he belongs by the seaside. Links golf no longer has his number.
“I don’t know if there has been any substantive change in my life, but I certainly feel different when I come over here to play,” he says. “I’ve always been excited to do that, but I now come with a new confidence and attitude because I’ve had success here. I guess I have a new belief in myself. Plus, having won the Open, I really feel part of such a great historical event. It’s the oldest in the game, after all.
“It’s fair to say that Bones [McKay, his caddie] and I both have a great appreciation of what Scotland has meant to golf and what the game means to the people over here. I know we both feel the affection emanating from the galleries out on the course. That means so much. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that people – such knowledgeable people – feel that way about us.
“I’m not sure how to put into words what a great experience last year’s Open was for us. We talk about it all the time. We laugh and we smile and we love to watch the replay and remember every emotion we went through. I can remember so much of that day so vividly, especially the shots I hit.”
Indeed, his was quite a performance. One over par for the championship when he reached the 13th tee, Mickelson hit a succession of near-perfect shots all the way to the 18th green, his sometimes erratic long game matching the almost peerless quality and variety of his shots around the green.
“Phil is like Seve was on tour,” says Rory McIlroy. “When he appears on the pitching green, everyone stops to watch. You have to. And that doesn’t happen with many people, only a handful. There is so much to admire even if you aren’t trying to pick up on anything. He just looks so comfortable with a wedge in his hands.”
As a measure of how well Mickelson played over Muirfield’s ordinarily demanding closing stretch, his score was at least three shots better than anyone else in the top ten. While he was sprinting, the other contenders were jogging on the spot.
“Standing on the 13th tee, my aim was just to get back to even par,” he admits. “I hit a beautiful shot there, but what transpired really came down to the putt I had for birdie. It was about 12 feet long, which was probably as close as anyone got to the flag that day. But it was still a hard putt to make.
“Standing over the ball, I figured I wasn’t going to get many more birdie chances. The upcoming holes were so tough. So this was – I thought – my one chance to get back to even for the tournament. I felt like I had to be at least that good to have a realistic chance to win the tournament. Anyway, holing that putt was really critical. It gave me the momentum I needed. On the very next hole I made a long putt for another birdie. But do I make that one, if I don’t make the one on the previous green? I don’t know. If one thing changes, everything changes.”
One year on from fulfilling one of the two biggest omissions on his stellar resume (the US Open, in which he has six times been runner-up, remains unconquered) Mickelson’s enthusiasm for the game that has been his profession is undiminished. Physically, things have changed, but mentally he is still the wee boy who, when playing with his father, refused to play the 18th hole: “Because then we’ll be finished.”
“I love golf,” he says simply. “It’s never been work for me and it still isn’t. I love the challenge the game provides. I love to compete. I love to compete at anything. I just love playing golf. That feeling is still in me. The only difference is I don’t have quite the same energy level. I get tired and sore a bit quicker. I even love going out to play nine holes in the evening by myself. I can still do that, especially over here after dinner at this time of year. It’s awesome. Right now, Scotland is a beautiful place to be if you’re a golfer like me.”
Mention of his physical condition is a reminder that Mickelson has not been without problems in that area. He suffers from psoriatic arthritis, a condition that has led to changes in his lifestyle. He hasn’t tasted a carbonated drink in years. He drinks only water or black coffee – “no cream or sugar”. And he avoids red meat as much as possible. But, despite his struggles this year – his only top-ten finish was in Abu Dhabi back in January – he remains confident of his ability to compete at the highest level. For the time being at least.
“It’s hard to say, six years out, what is going to happen,” he shrugs. “But I have a hard time envisioning me wanting to play the Senior Tour. But you never know; I never want to say never. By then my kids will be out of college and there are other things I want to do in life. But I also love what I do. A lot of it will depend on [wife] Amy and what we want to do together. We may want to travel the world.”
One thing Mickelson is not so quick to dismiss is the notion that a man far removed from the first flush of youth cannot at least contend in an Open. And evidence suggests that he is correct. The last three “champion golfers of the year” (Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson) have all been in their forties.
“I look at what Tom Watson did in 2009, when he almost won the Open aged 59,” says Mickelson. “Links golf provides the best opportunity for a player in his fifties to win a major. Length is less important. You can’t overpower links golf. You need all the shots. You need to be sharp around the greens. And you need to hole some incredibly difficult short putts in crosswinds. Those elements can all be overcome in old(er) age, because you don’t need distance. OK, you might have to hit a 3-wood to the spot most guys are hitting to with 3-irons, but you are still playing the same approach shots. The course is still 18 par-3s.”
So, it is clear, the motivation any sportsman needs to compete with the very best still lingers within Mickelson. He is not one for giving up without a fight, as his longstanding and ultimately successful battle with the vagaries of links golf shows only too clearly. Perhaps the only lingering question is why it took him so long to work it all out.
“I grew up playing a game where the idea is to hit the ball as high as possible with as little spin as possible,” he explains. “To do that you have to swing hard. And that’s how I hit every single shot. I eventually figured it out in 2004. I’ve played ten years now in which I have been very solid tee-to-green. But I still putted horribly for a while after that. The grasses over here are different and I took a while to adjust to that.
“I feel different about myself as a player now though. I look at myself differently because I have been able to play links golf at the highest level. That was a real challenge for me. But now that I have won the Open, everything changes.
“In a practice round at Muirfield last year I was on the par-5 9th. Before I hit my 4-iron second shot I sarcastically announced to everyone that, ‘this is the shot that led to two top-ten finishes in the Open Championship’. Then I hit this low, driving 4-iron bullet that landed short and ran up on to the green.
“That’s a shot you have to have in the Open. But for the longest time I had trouble with it. But now that I have won, the joke has totally flipped. I can stand there with a straight face and say, ‘this is the shot that won the Open Championship’.”
So he’s enjoyed himself these past 12 months, travelling the world with the spoils of his Open victory. The Claret Jug has been a regular companion, Mickelson gaining much pleasure from the enjoyment so many friends and fans have derived from its close proximity.
“I’ve loved having the Jug with me for the last 12 months,” he confirms. “The people who know and love the game get a big kick out of it. They really appreciate what it means to hold such a famous trophy. And drink out of it. I only let them drink the good stuff of course. There’s been nothing in there that is sub-par. But the best was a 1990 bottle of Romanee Conti wine. It wasn’t on my dime thankfully. It costs about $40,000.”
Which is only about one twenty-fourth of the first-place prize money on offer at Muirfield last year. Come on Phil, you could afford it.