HOYLAKE, England – For years, Phil Mickelson would arrive at the Open Championship and wonder.
Early on, he wondered if his soaring ball flight and aggressive style would translate to success.
After a few lean years, he wondered if he’d ever play well overseas.
Sometimes, he wondered what the heck he was even doing there, knowing full well that he didn’t have the requisite skills to conquer the most unique test in championship golf.
There’s a different feeling now.
Mickelson knows that he can perform – he did it last year, in back-to-back weeks, and in spectacular fashion, complete with one of the best rounds of his life.
“It takes a lot of pressure off me,” he said Monday here at Royal Liverpool, where he hopes the memories of the most unexpected trophy of his career will help jumpstart a listless year.
Mickelson has just one top-10 worldwide since last September (a span of 20 starts), though he’s shown signs of progress recently, with two T-11 finishes in his last three starts, including last week at the Scottish Open. But not even the ever-optimistic left-hander could put a positive spin on this campaign.
“It obviously hasn’t been a good year,” he said.
That his fortunes could change here seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. The 2013 Open was the most satisfying victory of Mickelson’s long career, something he said at Muirfield and reiterated now, because it was a win he never thought he could achieve. Doing so required a complete overhaul of his swing-from-the-heels game, and over the years Mickelson, for good reason, had been resistant to change – after all, you don’t win 42 times on the PGA Tour by accident.
His breakthrough, though, came in December 2003, when he worked with short-game guru Dave Pelz and learned how to hit wedge shots without spin, how to hit them with the proper ball flight and distance. After years of futility, he had come to understand that this skill was the key to links golf – the harder the swing, the more spin it creates, and the more the wind affects the ball. Now, he takes more club, swings easier and feels as though he is bunting a half shot.
“I’m not fighting it,” he said.
This entire season has been a battle of tug of war, however, and oftentimes he has come out on the losing end.
Mickelson says he’s driving the ball better and more confidently than he ever has, but he ranks 143rd on the PGA Tour in total driving – right around where he has been over the past several years.
He admits that it has not been a good putting year, not by any means, but he is hopeful that his recent work with Dave Stockton will mean more consistent week-in, week-out results on the greens. Maybe so, but the fact remains: He was sixth in putting in 2013. He ranks 133rd this season.
“Normally I would be discouraged or frustrated, but I’m just not,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had some good breakthroughs in some areas. I haven’t had the results; I know I haven’t played well. But the parts feel a lot better than the whole right now.”
He doesn’t know when it will come together – it could be this week, this month, this year – but “it should be soon.”
Mickelson, who turned 44 last month, continues to take the long view. He says that he believes that the next few years will be some of his best. He says that memories of the Open “almost motivate me to work harder and play more, practice even more, because I know there’s a finite amount of time (remaining).”
But if he’s extra-motivated in 2014, then this has to be his most maddening campaign yet. A year after another demoralizing runner-up at the U.S. Open, he geared his entire season toward peaking at Pinehurst. A few early-season injuries set him back, and sloppy play with his driving, wedge game and putting – he’s outside the top 100 in all three statistical categories – kept him from getting into contention before the year’s second major. Not even being back at Pinehurst, where all of his U.S. Open heartbreak began 15 years ago, was enough to resurrect his game. He finished joint 28th.
Nothing can change that result now, and a few weeks ago Mickelson spotted a re-run of the 2013 Open on Golf Channel. He DVR’d the highlights package and has watched it, he said, whenever he needed “a little bit of a confidence boost.”
Well, cue up the footage, because he needs one now, his game stagnating, his world ranking tumbling, his Ryder Cup spot in jeopardy. Fifty-two weeks after his most satisfying victory ever, Phil Mickelson arrives at this Open wondering just one thing:
Can I do it again?