Mickelson feels his game finally stable for Open Championship

Getty Images
Phil Mickelson has only two career victories on the European continent.

GULLANE, Scotland -- The first 15 times Phil Mickelson flew across the Atlantic to play in The Open Championship were an exercise in futility.

His one top-10 finish came in 2004 at Royal Troon when Mickelson ended up one shot shy of the playoff between Todd Hamilton and Ernie Els. In fact, he only cracked the top 20 three times -- total -- during that stretch.

That's when Mickelson used to hate links golf, though. His words, not ours.

"I used to hate it, and now I love it," Mickelson said Tuesday with that all-knowing twinkle in his eye.

It would be easy to trace his attitude adjustment to Sunday's win at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, his first in Europe since 1993, that sent the wildly-popular lefthander into this week's Open Championship at Muirfield fifth-ranked in the world and prime among the favorites. Or to the confidence Mickelson gained when he was runner-up as Darren Clarke claimed the Claret Jug at Royal St. George's two years ago.

In reality, though, he began to appreciate links golf when he learned to adapt his high-flying game to one where the ball stays closer to the ground. No longer was Mickelson fighting the thick, heavy coastal air or the capricious winds whipping off the water after he and short-game guru Dave Pelz developed a "low, little scooting" go-to shot that he could reliably put in play.

"And the miss is not anywhere near as drastic, because it's not ever up in the wind," Mickelson said. And that's good news for the man with the go-for-broke mentality and penchant for successfully extracating himself from near-disaster that has earned him the nickname of "Phil the Thrill."  

Mickelson and the former NASA scientist who routinely challenges the analytical Californian perfected that shot during a trip to the UK in 2004. But it's only been in the last year or so that the four-time major champion has seen the kind of stability in his putting that he feels can be an big asset this week on the sun-baked greens at Muirfield.

"I've not putted these greens well with these little subtle nuances and rolls, with the crosswinds that come into play, as well as the strong blades of fescue grass," Mickelson said. "But I am really optimistic about this week and going forward because I'm starting to putt as well as I ever have."

Gone is last year's experiment with the belly putter. Ditto for the grip changes. And with the exception of the 5-footer he missed for what would have been a win-in-regulation par on the 72nd hole at Castle Stuart three days ago, Mickelson felt he mastered the unique turf well last week.

"Finally I believe I have kind of found the secret to my own putting," he said. Not that Mickelson was inclined to share on Tuesday. "I tried to skip over that, because I'm not going to discuss it," was the reply when he was prodded.

Mickelson says his favorite Open course is St. Andrews because the R&A's home turf seeps with history. But from what he calls an "opportunity-to-win standpoint," he'd pick Muirfield and Royal Troon due to the way the holes are laid out.

"It's very comfortable for me off some of the tees, getting the ball in play, as well as around the greens," he said.
Prior to Sunday, Mickelson had never won an event in Great Britain and his only win in Europe came two decades ago in Paris at a Challenge Tour event. He's no stranger to consecutive victories, though, having accomplished the feat four times during his career -- including at the 2006 BellSouth Classic and the Masters the following week.

Mickelson liked the way he played the first couple of rounds at Castle Stuart when the winds laid down and he could flight the ball more like he does in the States. But when it came time to grind on Sunday, though, as the wind and the squalls arrived, Mickelson hung tough.

"And I thought that that was a good sign because you just don't know what kind of weather you're going to get here," he said, mindful of the cold rain and biting wind that attended third round of the 2002 Open at Muirfield. "And certainly you need a little bit of luck to come out on top here. We saw what happened to Tiger in '02 (when he shot 81). It was one of worst breaks imaginable, especially after he had won the first two majors and had a shot at the Grand Slam.

"It's part of the tournament here, you need an element of luck, but you also need to play some great golf. These last few months I've played well enough to get in contention and play well here, but I do need some luck."

Mickelson made his on Sunday at Castle Stuart when he lobbed a wedge to a foot for the win on the first playoff hole. So the question is -- what will Phil do next Sunday at the season's third major?