The contrast between two Open challengers from the United States could not have been starker yesterday. Brandt Snedeker was first into the interview room at Muirfield. Sadly, not too many followed him in there. Next it was Phil Mickelson’s turn, and it was necessary to have your wits about you to avoid being trampled in the stampede.
While Mickelson looked out and saw a sea of faces, it was entirely possible to do a head count of those occupying seats to hear Snedeker speak. There were 37 in the room, and this included photographers and cameramen and women.
“This is a big turnout for me, what are you talking about?” smiled Snedeker, when one journalist tried to preserve his feelings by putting the absence of bodies down to it being the journalists’ lunch hour. Snedeker clearly didn’t mind.
However, there are now far fewer excuses for not knowing who he is. The Nashville native won the Tour Championship last year, after beating Rory McIlroy to the FedEx Cup title – and the cool $10 million that came with it. He was then tied for the lead going into the final day at the Masters earlier this year, but faded disappointingly.
On trips to Europe, Snedeker used to joke that no-one has heard of him “back home” either. Such ignorance is illustrated by research into his background throwing up conflicting stories about what his father does for a living. In one article, he is the owner of a pawn shop. In another, Snedeker Snr is an attorney.
A third place finish at last year’s Open – after he had equalled Nick Faldo’s championship record of 130 for the first 36 holes – established Snedeker in the public consciousness on this side of the Atlantic, particularly since he was leading the field at the half-way point. He was also good fun. He was regularly seen in drinking holes that particular week sinking a few pints. He developed a liking for the local lager.
And here again he has been investigating the local nectar. He has already been spotted in a couple of hostelries in North Berwick, where he says he is doing as the locals do. “You Scottish guys drink Tennent’s,” he noted. “I can’t drink the dark beers. But Tennent’s is as close as it gets.”
He referred to this trip to Scotland as being “guys’ week”, a description that might have those old-timers lingering by the bar at the clubhouse across the way clinking their glasses in agreement. At Muirfield, of course, it has been “guys’ week” since 1891.
“You’re travelling with your agent, your caddie, your swing instructor, so you end up hanging out with them all week, having some fun and seeing the other guys out there,” said Snedeker. “It’s great.
“It’s different for us out here,” he said. “I normally travel with my wife and young kids. To be at a guys’ event where you’re having a few pints at night and having a great time, it’s fun. Something different.”
Snedeker is an endearingly laid-back character. He did most of his intense preparation work last weekend, so this week involves only some tinkering – and drinking.
“The next couple of days I’m taking it easy to get ready for Thursday,” he said. He is included in an appealing-looking group that also comprises Ernie Els and Justin Rose, who finally broke his majors duck earlier this year at the US Open.
Why is this relevant? Well, Snedeker is inching closer to his first major title. And like Rose, he is 32 years old. There are six 32-year-olds in total in the field, not including the reigning Masters champion Adam Scott, who turned 33 yesterday. What price the first three majors of 2013 all being won by 32 year-old major virgins?
“I have been told about that [statistic] a few times, and I love it,” smiled Snedeker. “The precedent is being set. And now the hard part is making sure it keeps going. I’ll take any little quirky thing and use it in my favour”.
Other things he will be using in his favour is a grade A putting game that has been likened to Tom Watson at his finest. He is also helped by experience after he finally got to grips with the links game last year, following three missed cuts at the Open. Even in the final two rounds last year, he says he made “typical American mistakes” by attempting to take on the wind that had gained in strength by the weekend, but his performance in the first two rounds – when he shot 66 and 64 – showed how well he can do, given clement conditions.
Mickelson would be able to tell him that an appreciation of links golf can take a while to develop. The Scottish Open champion says that “everything changed” for him in 2004, when he came to Britain with Dave Pelz, a short game guru, and settled on a “low, little scooting shot” that he described as a “chip hybrid”.
He has now also unlocked the secret to putting, he says – but that will remain a secret. “I feel I have keyed into something, and I don’t want to share,” he said yesterday.
The first time Mickelson played links golf was as long ago as 1991, when he featured in the Walker Cup at Portmarnock. He then tried to qualify for the Open the following year, at Muirfield, but missed out by a couple of shots at North Berwick. “I remember that golf course very vividly,” he said. Asked about his relationship with links golf, Mickelson described it as “hate-love – I used to hate it, and now I love it.”
Since that trip to Northern Ireland, Mickelson has had to wait another 20 years for his first links victory, which came at Castle Stuart last weekend, and was celebrated by the Mickelson family and his many Scottish fans alike. He is aware it is rare for a player to win a major coming straight off another tournament success. “But then again, the last person to do it, you are looking at him,” he smiled, with reference to his successes at the BellSouth Classic in Georgia and then the Masters in 2006.
It was a good line on which to finish. The only trouble being it isn’t true. Tiger Woods achieved such a double more recently, when he lifted the WGC-Bridgstone Invitational and PGA championship titles in 2007. Still, with Phil being as popular as he is, those reporters who thronged around him at the end of his interview for some extra bon mots will surely find it in their hearts to forgive him.