Interview: Phil Mickelson sees opportunity in woes

Phil Mickelson watches one of his shots at the Scottish Open at Gullane. Picture: Getty Images
Phil Mickelson watches one of his shots at the Scottish Open at Gullane. Picture: Getty Images
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UNFAZED by march of time, Mickelson sees Woods’ woes as an opportunity, writes John Huggan

The plan was to talk after the pro-am preceding the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open that will conclude today at Gullane. Which was fine. Watching Phil Mickelson play golf is always worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Listening is always interesting, too. There can’t be many leading golfers who interact more animatedly with caddies, spectators and just about anybody else really.

Mickelson’s pre-shot discussions with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay can be particularly in-depth, every aspect of wind, terrain and trajectory taken into account before each expresses their “like” for the eventual choice of club. Although there are occasions when Mickelson simply accepts the information offered and acts on it.

“What are you thinking Bones?” he asked on what is normally the tenth tee on the Gullane No.1 course.

“I’m thinking 3-wood,” came the reply. “It flies the bunker on the left and stays short of the bunker in the middle.”

“Then a 3-wood it shall be.”

All of which immediately preceded a perfect shot into the very spot indicated by his faithful bagman and, in turn, a brief conversation between Mickelson and his son, Evan.

“Evan, that’s Muirfield down there,” said Mickelson, pointing to the distant venue of the Open Championship he won so memorably in 2013. “Only the true greats win there.”

“You must be the exception then,” retorted Mickelson junior, forever confirming his identity without need of any DNA test. To his credit, no one laughed longer or louder than the butt of the joke.

Maybe three hours later, Mickelson walked off the 18th green and into the usual sea of autograph seekers. Unlike almost any one of his peers, the 45-year-old Californian does not simply sign a few and walk off. Nor – in a shameful pretence all but perfected by one notable European star of the fairly recent past – does he pretend to be on his mobile phone and march off leaving disappointed fans in his wake. No, like Arnold Palmer, Mickelson stands there until no one is left and writes his name on anything except golf balls.

“I’ve always felt like autographs are part of being a professional golfer,” he says. “It’s about showing respect and appreciation for those that allow us to play golf for a living. Back in 1996 the PGA Tour started what they called an ‘autograph area’. It really worked for me, even if not for the tour. They only did it for a year. But it allowed me to prepare for the round and compete during the round – even practice – then mentally set aside 20 minutes or whatever to sign autographs afterwards. It just worked for me. And I’ve stuck to it ever since.

“I would find any comparison between myself and Arnold to be flattering. Arnold is ‘the King’ for a reason. He treats people better than any other player. He is the ultimate professional. And he has been exciting and charismatic to watch. So to be compared with someone like him is nothing but a compliment. If I were to model myself after another professional, Arnold would be the one.”

On the course more than off, Mickelson also bears a close resemblance to the style and appeal of the late Seve Ballesteros. Not surprisingly, the American was a great admirer of the Spaniard.

“Seve had a lot of Arnold in him,” he says. “He had the same charisma. He had the same aggressive style of play. He had the same flair for the dramatic. I was lucky to spend time with him. We were both with Hugo Boss in the late 90s and did photo-shoots together. I remember one at Loch Lomond. In between taking the pictures we would have little contests. We tried 5-iron lob-shots. We tried 5-irons out of bunkers. He was really good because he grew up playing with only one club. But I was able to hang close with him.

“He had a pair of magical hands and was so much fun to watch. I never agreed with the notion that America and he didn’t get along. Yes, the Ryder Cup caused hostility because he was so tough. But I always found people in the States who pulled for him and were drawn to him. Every time I saw him play he drew huge crowds.”

The same is true of Mickelson. Attracted by his innate approachability and the prospect of seeing a breathtaking shot or two, the five-time major champion is never without a gallery, even as he approaches what is typically an awkward age for any pro golfer.

Battling the inevitable ravages of time is never easy, but he is confident his own war is far from lost.

“I think my place in the history of the game is still evolving,” he says. “I hope to have a lot to say about that over the next five years or so. The last two years haven’t been my best, but the last two months I’ve seen glimpses that make me believe the next few years are going to bring something special.

“I’m aware that my time of life has been awkward for many players. It is hard to stay competitive at the highest level in your late 40s. But I don’t think it will be a problem for me. I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m motivated. And my swing is a long, leverage-based swing. I use a big long wide arc to create clubhead speed and distance. It’s a cliché to say long swingers have long careers and short swingers have short careers, but it’s true.

“I’m currently hitting the ball farther than I ever have. Over the last four years, my speed had declined. It is now back to where it was, or faster. So the strengthening and conditioning I’ve been doing has paid off. The fundamentals in my swing are back to where I want them. I don’t know if it will be this week or next, but sooner or later it will start to click.”

For all his protests, however, over the last couple of seasons a trend has emerged. The spikes in Mickelson’s recent record are both obvious and predictable. Only at and just before the four majors is he fully energised.

“The majors are certainly what I care about,” he admits. “We all care about them. That’s nothing new. But over the last ten years or so I’ve developed a gameplan that allows me to produce my best golf in the four biggest weeks of the year. That’s what I want to continue doing over the next five years.”

Most immediately, that means the Open at St Andrews, a venue where creative Mickelson has had a surprising lack of success. In four previous visits to the Home of Golf his record reads: T-40 in 1995, T-11 in 2000, T-60 in 2005 and T-48 in 2010. Still, if that sort of futility continues, lack of effort and study won’t be the problem.

“Five years ago at St Andrews I took extensive notes,” says Mickelson. “Not much has changed since other than the tee-boxes, which is not important. I know all the greens and how the ball breaks on each. So I know where to play to and where to play away from. All the details are in the book.

“On every single hole I know the break from the front edge of the green. So, if I get in trouble, I play to the front edge. Even if the pin is 40 yards back, I still know the break. It’s not like I have to read the putt again. Yes, I’ll hit them in practice. But only to validate what I already know. I won’t have to learn them over again.”

The Open victory two years ago did much to validate the Mickelson career. Impressive though his record was, the lack of meaningful wins outside the relatively one-dimensional PGA Tour cast legitimate doubts over his true greatness. Added to his Scottish Open win the week before at Castle Stuart, Muirfield 2013 surely represents the most important four days of Mickelson’s career.

“My win at Muirfield elevated me in my own mind,” he says. “To play links golf effectively was a big thrill. Now I feel like links golf gives me the best chance to win. These are not courses you have to overpower. You have to think strategically. You need the knockdown shots into the wind. You need a great short game. It’s a style of golf you can play well long into your career, as Tom Watson proved in 2009. He was inches away from winning. He hit a perfect shot on 18 and just got unlucky.

“Now that I have had success and feel comfortable with links golf, I have a great chance to win. I started to play wind effectively in 2004. I can get the ball down on the ground with not much spin. Holding me back was the fescue greens. I couldn’t putt them effectively. That was the biggest factor. I hit a lot of good shots but just didn’t putt well enough to win. Now I can. I certainly putted phenomenally well at Muirfield.

“Those last six holes were unbelievable. I played one shot at a time and it added up to four under par. I watched the highlights on the way over here. Those are great memories and very inspiring. I can’t believe I played them in four under as tough as they were. I’m not sure I would have bet on myself to win standing on the 13th tee. Of course, I am neither confirming nor denying that I bet on anything.”

Ah yes, Tom Watson. In the wake of their unfortunate and very public falling-out at Gleneagles last year, Mickelson has these past few days been quick to pay tribute to the five-times Open champion who will be bidding adieu to the game’s oldest event at St Andrews. And, just as promptly, he has made it clear he is not keen to further discuss their clearly fractured relationship.

“I’m more about looking forward,” says Mickelson. “We’re going to have better continuity and leadership in the Ryder Cup. There will be greater involvement using a model close to what the European Tour has, one that has been very successful. In the past, the US team was able to win because we were more talented. We could get away with not playing our best. But those days are gone. We are evenly talented or not as talented. So we have to play our best. And we will never do that without the proper leadership.”

A Tiger Woods back to something like top form wouldn’t go amiss either. Not surprisingly – imagine the headlines if he did – Mickelson is reluctant to write off his great rival.

“We all go through highs and lows,” he points out. “And when you have seen someone play at a level higher than anyone in the history of the game, it’s awkward to see him not at that level. But when you’ve already been there, it is easier to get it back than it is to get there in the first place. Tiger knows what it feels like to hit shots and play at that level and shoot those scores. The only question in my mind is his health. If he is physically able to do it, he will. If he doesn’t have that, he won’t be able to.”

Still, for all his kind words, the tough competitor – no one enjoys a big-money match more – lurking just beneath Mickelson’s amiable exterior emerges from his parting words.

“I just love playing and competing,” he claims. “I love what I do. I love my job. I love playing against the best players. And I see opportunity in the game. Right now, no one is playing at the level Tiger reached earlier in his career. He had no holes in his game. But now, everyone has some weakness that can be exposed. I see that as an opportunity.”