Scottish Open: Mickelson still has links appetite

Phil Mickelson watches his drive during Scottish Open practice. Picture: SNS

Phil Mickelson watches his drive during Scottish Open practice. Picture: SNS

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THERE was a moment during Phil Mickelson’s press conference when somebody asked him about his plans away from the golf course and he responded with talk of Hanoverians and Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden just down the road. His wife and kids wanted to check out the scene, said Mickelson.

“The war was in 1746, maybe, roughly. I’m not sure. I’ve got to read up on it,” he said. Typical Phil. Others, like the now apologetic Graeme McDowell, stay away from Castle Stuart and diss the golf course, while Mickelson not only fetches up and declares his love for the place, but brings his family to a killing field to further embrace the country and its history. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

In the ProAm, he had Alex Salmond as a playing partner. The chances are that by the time they finished Mickelson would have been able to go to his room to write a thesis on Scottish battles. The rest of us? We could write a thesis on Phil and his travails in Scotland. Many visits, no victories. Here he is again, though. Back for more. Still trying to figure out links golf.

It’s not often that Mickelson shies away from risk on the golf course, but in the business of blasting the R&A and the USGA for the way they set up their golf courses, the American couldn’t quite bring himself to go for it.

“One of the things they have done is take the driver out of your hand and made it a long-iron challenge,” he said of the US Open at Merion, the upcoming Open at Muirfield and all the other major championships where the authorities answer the runaway advances in technology by doctoring great courses with ridiculous rough, flanking fairways the width of the aisle in the American’s jet .

When asked to elaborate on the ills of the governing bodies, Mickelson eased off. His demeanour, though, was that of a man who wanted to have a lash, but couldn’t be bothered dealing with the hassle that his criticism would bring.

“It’s not my position to interfere with the decisions of the R&A and the USGA,” he remarked, saying little, but, in a sense, saying everything. “If it was, we wouldn’t be seeing some of the changes they have made over the last four or five years. It’s not my position to get involved in course set-up. As a player, it’s my job to adapt.”

Adapting to a new style of golf and also adapting to the disappointment he felt last month when finishing second in the US Open for the sixth time, the impact of which may still not have left when missing the cut at Greenbrier last weekend. He played well at Merion, but not well enough – and it hurt. Yesterday, he made no secret of that.

“Part of professional golf is dealing with losing and being resilient and bouncing back. Rather than look it as a failure, I want to use it as an opportunity to take advantage of where my game has got to in the last few months, starting here at the Scottish Open and then The Open. They all kind of hurt, but then you move on. It’s one of those things where maybe at the end of my career I’ll look back on it a little bit more.”

And so to the links stretch. Mickelson is forever trying to convince himself that he has the game to win on links courses, not just at Castle Stuart, but, more to the point, at Muirfield next week, when he plays in his 20th Open, the previous 19 having produced just two top-10 finishes. Of the 15 where he has survived the cut, Mickelson’s average finish since his debut in 1991 is 41st. A feeble record for one so talented.

“It’d be one of my greatest accomplishments to be able to conquer links golf and to win an Open championship,” he said. “Although I’ve come close twice (second to Darren Clarke in 2011 and one shot out of the Todd Hamilton and Ernie Els play-off at Troon in 2004), I haven’t really played my best golf in this event. I think I’ve identified reasons why, but it’s time to play now. It’s time to shoot the scores and hit the shots that I’ve spent 20 years trying to work on.”

This is what you might call the Mickelson Mantra. He said the same thing on this very day 12 months ago and then shot 73, 78 to miss the cut at Lytham. His has been an epic struggle to persuade himself that he loves links golf and can win the Open. We have seen only the briefest glimpse of the evidence.

He has worked it out, he said. The weaknesses in his game over the last “four or five years” at the Open – a lot longer than that, in truth – have involved his driving and his putting and those two areas, he insists, have become strengths. His putting has improved because of the set-up he has at home in what he calls his “yard”. Some yard. He has five putting greens in the place with different types of grass; Bent, Poa Annua, Mini Verde, Bermuda. “I spend a lot of time in the evening putting and now it feels great. The real reason I’ve not played well on links golf is because I haven’t putted the greens well. I haven’t adjusted well, but because I’ve been putting so well lately, I’m forward to the challenge.

“I’m optimistic it could be a little bit different. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, especially at Muirfield, is that you need an element of luck relative to your tee-time. You need to play well, but you also need to have a good end of the tee-times. I remember 2002 (at Muirfield). Tiger had won the first two majors of the year and was only a shot or two back heading into the weekend. It looked he was unstoppable and then he got hit with some of the worst weather you could ever imagine. I still can’t believe what a brutally difficult day that was and it ended up costing him a shot at the Grand Slam.”

Tiger, of course, has won the Open multiple times. What Mickelson would give to win just once.

Stateside Open

THERE’S a star-spangled touch to this week’s Scottish Open as it becomes the first European Tour event to be shown live by American broadcaster NBC.

Hosted by Rich Lerner and with Kiwi Frank Nobilo leading the commentary, station chiefs have hand-picked Castle Stuart for the ground-breaking venture due to its scenic setting.

While the on-course action will be the primary focus, the production will also be aiming to educate American fans about Scotland’s status as the home of golf.

“It is incredibly important that the Scottish Open is the first event,” said Mike McCarley, president of the Golf Channel, which is now under the NBC umbrella.

“The home of golf holds a certain amount of fascination to American viewers. For the average golfer, I think they’ll know very little about the influence Scotland had on golf in America.”

Monty not settling for second

BUOYED by a top-ten finish in his first over-50s outing a fortnight ago, Colin Montgomerie has his sight set on victory in this week’s US Senior Open in Nebraska.

“I haven’t travelled from Edinburgh, spent a night in London, travelled to Chicago and then on to here to finish second,” declared the eight-time European No 1 on the eve of the tournament in Omaha.

After finishing runner-up three times in the US Open, the Scot is determined to go one better and says he’d cherish an over-50s major the same way Fred Couples did when he landed the Senior Open at Turnberry last year.

“It was very interesting to see that Freddy has a replica of the Senior British Open in a prime spot in his exhibit in the Hall of Fame,” noted Montgomerie.

“That shows the emphasis that he puts on a Senior major win and I would do something similar. I’ve been very close to winning the US Open on a number of occasions, and it would be great to finally win a USGA event.”

MARTIN DEMPSTER

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