The Open: Phil Mickelson back to nice-guy persona

Phil Mickelson, in action on the third green, is still in contention at Muirfield after a frustrating start.  Picture: Jane Barlow

Phil Mickelson, in action on the third green, is still in contention at Muirfield after a frustrating start. Picture: Jane Barlow

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THE cursing from the R&A has long since been quelled following Phil Mickelson’s opening round dig at the course set-up.

On Friday “Lefty” had reverted back to his nice-guy persona as he accentuated the positives, and he kept that theme going yesterday, even wheeling out an “excellent” to describe the course. Now the only curse he has to deal with is that of the Scottish Open winner, given the history – no triumph in that event has ever been followed by victory in the only home major.

But the American is hoping that, having waited an eternity for a win on British soil, another victory will roll up right behind it. It took him 21 years to card his first UK win, only his second ever in Europe. But as this most testing of Opens reaches its conclusion, he has ensured he remains in a position to pounce.

Having finished one over for the day to leave himself two over for the tournament, there he was, still wooing the crowds with his politeness, thanking the marshals, wishing everyone a good day and smiling at anyone who looked his way. It’s the kind of stuff that riles some who believe he is too good to be true and prefer to buy into the belief that it’s a facade intended to endear. But what certainly isn’t fake is his determination to add this title to the Scottish Open success at Castle Stuart last week.

Unhappy with the way he had been hitting the ball in the second round, he spent an age on the practice ground with his swing coach Butch Harmon yesterday morning. That’s the dedication he has always shown, say his supporters in defence of a man who some believe is great but could have been even better if he had wanted it more. A strange thing to say about a man who has shown he has what it takes to win multiple majors. Even at 43 years old there is a hunger, it’s just more understated. He doesn’t stalk the fairways like a possessed predator, rarely explodes in a fit of pique when a shot goes array. He is more composed than that. Yesterday, he set out, one of the best bets to close the gap on the men at the top of the leaderboard, a man capable of getting some early scoring up around the course to pile pressure on those coming after him.

It started well with a birdie at the second. Two more followed but so did four bogeys. The first of the dropped shots came at the fifth as he found his way into the long grass and, howking the ball out, he was rewarded with a face full of debris and a scorecard setback. He added three more on the back nine.

But for all the Nice Guy Phil stuff, it was instilled in him early that he had to embrace life and compete like heck, so he added a birdie into the mix on the 12th and kept plugging away. Departing the course that has claimed the scalps of many big names already and made others in the field look silly at times, he is still in this, competing like heck.

All around he was willed on, the cheers reflective of the public’s less cynical view of the loping Lefty. The bigger crowds tailed Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood but there are enough knowledgeable golf fans in these parts to know that, even a few shots back, Mickelson’s golf can carry some menace on the final day of a major. Even at the Open, which has so far been a dogged absentee on his CV.

As you might expect for a man christened “Figjam” by some of his peers (standing for F***, I’m Good, Just Ask Me) in reference to perceived arrogance on Mickelson’s part, the man himself agrees.

Looking at the scoreboard as he left the 18th, he believed that no-one would be too far ahead of him on the last day. “I certainly think that’s a good spot to be in,” he said. “I have to play a really good round. If I can shoot something in the 60s I think that will be enough.”

A player with enviable touch and feel on a golf course, having worked on his ball striking, it was his putting which failed to reach the peaks he has been scaling in recent rounds. He just didn’t make enough on the greens when pars were the consolation when birdie opportunities went begging.

“I feel like the only hole that is kind of, I don’t want to say gimme birdie, but a hole you should birdie is No.9 and everything else you’ve got to make a 20, 30-footer. You’re very lucky if you hit it close. I hit a shot close on No.2, that had a tap-in birdie. But, yeah, you just need an element of luck or you’re going to have to make 20, 30-footers. I didn’t make really any today. And subsequently only had three birdies,” he said. “But it was fine. It was a good round. Anything around par was a good round. I think that I’ll have to play a good round [today, but I think it’s right there.”

With so many bunched together, there will be several golfers out there thinking and hoping the same thing.

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