So much for golf becoming a young man’s game. Three of the top four players at the halfway stage in the 145th Open Championship are in their 40s. If one of them, Phil Mickelson, claims the Claret Jug at Royal Troon tomorrow for the second time in four years, the 46-year-old will become the event’s oldest winner since Old Tom Morris in 1867. The American would claim that honour by 68 days.
With one of Mickelson’s compatriots, Zach Johnson, having triumphed at the age of 39 at St Andrews 12 months ago, experience looks as though it has become more important than any club in the bag when it comes to trying to secure this particular prize.
Perhaps it is down to the myriad of weather conditions this tournament throws up year after year.
Thursday’s glorious sunshine was, indeed, the calm before the storm. Yesterday certainly wasn’t brutal, by any means, but it was troublesome, nonetheless, due to the fact it was so changeable. The morning starters got it wet, as, in the end, did those out in the afternoon, when they also had to cope with a rising wind. It was pesky. At first it looked as though it would be helping on the tougher inward half only to swing round and become almost a crosswind off the sea.
Guess who enjoys these sort of challenges? Yes, Mickelson. He backed up his eight-under-par 63 on Thursday with a 69 – it was solid rather than spectacular, though almost saw him emulate the great Gene Sarazen, who achieved the feat in 1973, by making a hole-in-one at the Postage Stamp – for a 10-under-par total. It’s a new record for the opening 36 holes here, beating Bobby Clampett (1982) and Darren Clarke (1997) by a shot. The five-time major winner leads by one from 40-year-old Henrik Stenson, who blazed into contention on the back of a best-of-the-day 65, with 41-year-old Dane Soren Kjeldsen and American Keegan Bradley one further back in joint-third after matching 68s.
Three ahead overnight, Mickelson didn’t have to wait long to show us how this great game will always even itself out. Admittedly, his birdie putt at the 18th on Thursday that somehow stayed out would have earned him a place in the record books for the first 62 in a major. But the par putt at the second that just managed to grab enough of the cup to drop certainly made amends for that.
He duly picked up three birdies in five holes from the fourth, almost making a hole-in-one at the Postage Stamp, where his ball spun back to within a couple of inches for his second birdie there in two days.
“I love that hole,” he admitted. “I got a little bit more aggressive to that pin than is probably smart, but it’s paid off as I’ve been fortunate to have capitalised on it. I’ll be a lot more cautious, though, as the pin gets further back.”
As the rain became heavier, out came the two black all-weather gloves he had also worn when closing with a 66 in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart last Sunday. They couldn’t stop a first bogey of the event going down on his card at the 12th, where he zig-zagged his way to the green, but that Mickelson smile was back two holes later as he also birdied the par-3 14th for the second day in a row. Add in the 2 he made at the 17th on Thursday and that makes him five-under for the eight short holes he’s played so far. The par he made at the penultimate hole this time around probably felt like a birdie as he got up and down from an awkward spot in a greenside bunker. “A big momentum keeper” was his description of that escape.
“I thought it was a good round to back up the low one yesterday,” said the leader. “I made one or two bad swings, but, for the most part, I kept the ball in play and played kind of stress-free golf.”
The most important weapon in his bag so far has been a 2-iron that has been used more than his driver and could be the key in Mickelson’s bid to stay out in front over the weekend. “It’s a speciality club for over here, where I’m trying to get the ball on to the ground quickly off the tee so the ground is affecting it more than the air. That’s been one of the biggest challenges for me over the years and that 2-iron is taking a lot of stress for me away from my tee shots.”
It took 12 appearances for Mickelson to find his feet on the links tests for this event. Ironically, it was here in 2004, when finishing third, that he finally felt he had mastered the examination. It was another nine years, of course, before he got his hands on the Claret Jug and there’s no denying that using the Scottish Open as preparation has also been a masterstroke as he again finds himself in the major mix the week after a visit to Castle Stuart. “Getting accustomed to how the air and the wind and the rain affects the ball over here was very important,” he said of last week’s event in the Highlands. “Indeed, I was actually more worried about yesterday’s round than I was these coming rounds because I feel very comfortable to be able to shoot a good score. I felt like I’d be best prepared for days like today.”
Stenson’s six-under 65 was an outstanding effort, though, like the 66 carded by former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, it was chiselled out, partly at least, in favourable conditions. “I think I timed it quite well,” said the Orlando-based Scandinavian. “It was quite playable the first five holes before the rain hit the first time and I managed to pick up birdies on three, four and five. Then it eased off and I made another birdie on seven.” He described his sole bogey of the round – at the ninth – as a “soft one” before “hanging on for dear life” on the difficult 11th and 12th holes. “I got away with a couple of pars there before finishing up quite tidy with another couple of birdies on the way home,” he added.
He’s in contention here a month after withdrawing during the US Open at Oakmont due to “minor neck and knee issues”. The latter might well have been a recurrence of the problems that forced him to undergo surgery last winter. It was Mickelson who finished ahead of Stenson at Muirfield three years ago and the American certainly has the edge in terms of what it takes to win majors. Stenson, though, has all the tools required to become the first Swede to land one of those coveted titles in the men’s game. “He’s six years older than me, so I should be a little stronger, shouldn’t I?” asked Stenson, golf’s joker in the pack.
Those in the chasing pack should be warned, however, that Mickelson may be 46 but he certainly doesn’t feel it. “I understand the age thing,” he said, “but I’m in better shape physically than ten years ago and, now that my swing is back on plane, I’m starting to hit shots like I did ten years ago and starting to play some of my best golf again.”