John Huggan: Mickelson’s missing links

WELL now, there’s certainly a lot to talk about in the wake of the 142nd Open Championship, the 16th playing of the world’s oldest and most important event at magnificent Muirfield.
Phil Mickelson won the Scottish Open and then the Open in a fortnight that showed he's finally got to grips with links golf. Picture: Jane BarlowPhil Mickelson won the Scottish Open and then the Open in a fortnight that showed he's finally got to grips with links golf. Picture: Jane Barlow
Phil Mickelson won the Scottish Open and then the Open in a fortnight that showed he's finally got to grips with links golf. Picture: Jane Barlow

Not every Open is great, of course, but this one qualifies. A few caveats apart – of which more later – Phil Mickelson’s remarkable two-week march from long-time Caledonian incompetency to seaside supremacy provided yet more conclusive proof that “firm-and-fast” links golf really is the most varied and interesting test of any player’s capabilities.

Truly, it was magnificent stuff. Let’s take a closer look at what went on.

The Champion Golfer of the Year

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Predictably and understandably, the American media has wasted nary a minute in hailing Mickelson as the “second-best golfer of his generation”. Which, at first glance, is fair enough. The last fortnight goes a long way towards supporting that notion. Not before time, either. For too long it has been too easy to dismiss the game’s greatest-ever left-hander as something of a one-trick pony. Enormously gifted but unable to win beyond the cosseted confines of the too-often one-dimensional examination paper set by the PGA Tour.

Now, however, some reassessment is required. This was Mickelson’s fifth Grand Slam victory, one more than Ernie Els, his only real rival for that “second-best” tag behind the incomparable Tiger Woods. But there is more to it than mere majors. Because three of the four are annually played on US soil, there is a clear and obvious advantage to those born American.

Things are improving, though. In terms of access to the Masters, US Open and US PGA – and in comparison with their predecessors – non-Americans are privileged these days. But that is a fairly recent phenomenon. The roll call of champions has forever been skewed by the long-term xenophobia of the majors not played in the United Kingdom. Which is why good-but-not-great players Jeff Sluman, Bob Tway and Larry Mize have majors to their names and at least equally talented individuals such as Sam Torrance, Howard Clark and Mark James do not.

But that is a debate for another day. Until this recent reversal of his previous – and freely admitted – frustration with golf played on the ground as much as in the air, Mickelson could never claim to “own” the same kind of rounded game that has seen Els win all over the golfing planet. Now, however, he is significantly closer to the big South African in that respect. But, until the San Diego native takes himself off to places such as Australia, Africa and Japan – and wins – then Els still owns an edge in the diversity stakes.

For now, let’s call them “second-equal”.

The 54-Hole Leader

It would be unfair to label Lee Westwood – who has 39 worldwide victories on his resume – a loser. But where there is a winner, there has to be someone who, well, doesn’t win. And, for the umpteenth time in major championships, the 40-year-old from Worksop, pictured left, played his way into contention then failed to capitalise on that good work with a final round lacking in inspiration. This was his 16th top-ten finish in a major championship.

No one, of course, does a better job of handling such disappointment than Westwood. His behaviour last Sunday, as his chances inexorably faded, was exemplary. And he said all the right things afterwards. But it is a safe bet that, inside, his thoughts did not exactly mirror his words. He would be less than human were he not to quietly bemoan his luck in the four events that ultimately define careers.

It’s an old line but a sobering one for the likes of Westwood and Colin Montgomerie. While plenty of majors have been won by players who are less than great, every great player has won at least one major. History, one fears, will not be kind to either man.

On the bright side, Westwood must surely have taken some heart from the fact that the last three Open champions are all in their forties. And all three played in the Scottish Open the week before their victories. So get yourself to Royal Aberdeen next July, young Westwood.

The World No.1

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The last four major championships have been won by those currently ranked two, three, four and five in the world. The glaring omission is No.1, who hasn’t played like No.1 for a while now. Indeed, the prospects of the 14-times major champion Tiger Woods passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 19 have never appeared more unlikely. Last Sunday, Woods was a shadow of his formerly peerless self.

An indication of the Woods malaise came one day before a closing 74 saw him drift off into a tie for sixth place. Into a stiffish breeze, the best golfer on the planet felt unable to hit his driver off the 17th tee. More likely, he was scared to use the longest club in his bag, so unreliable has it become under pressure. So, while his playing partner, Westwood, made a birdie, Woods was unable to carry the deep fairway bunkers around 150 yards short of the green with his second shot. It was sad to see the man who has played the game better than anyone else ever reduced to such a snivelling strategy.

The Organisers

This was not a good week for the R&A. Quite apart from the ongoing stooshie – 259 years and counting – about the all-male membership of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and the similarly misogynistic policy in operation at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (269 years), there was much for the game’s rules-makers to reflect on. Not much of it positive.

Presented with a Muirfield in almost perfect condition, the R&A came close to what could euphemistically be called a complete cock-up. On day one, knowing the greens were beautifully firm and quick, those in charge of course set-up contrived to place more than one pin in places that quite simply beggared belief – the eighth and the 18th holes spring immediately to mind.

On day two the 15th green – the most interesting putting surface on the storied course – was reduced to near farce by a pin position that betrayed something close to a complete lack of understanding of links golf. Then, seemingly panicked, the R&A decided to all but flood the approach to that beautiful green. Ball after ball on the final day landed short and stopped rather than bouncing on. After missing one point by a sizeable margin, those in charge compounded the error by missing it again, just as wildly, at the other end of the scale.

Then there were the by-now requisite rules controversies. Scotland’s Martin Laird was penalised a shot for what amounted to not speaking loudly enough and the highly-promising Hideki Matsuyama of Japan (surely a future major champion) was told to add a stroke to his score because he played too slowly.

Two questions spring to mind. When are golf’s ruling bodies going to go after the real cheats rather than focusing on so-called infractions from which no advantage is either sought or gained? And when is a really high-profile player going to be “done” for taking too long over a shot? Just asking.