Lefty Still a Work in Progress at Open

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CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- This is the sort of tournament that Phil Mickelson used to practice for as a kid, hitting one strange shot after another in his backyard.
 
Lob shots. Low spinners. Anything to break up the monotony of striking the ball on a downsized layout.
 
'Just try to create shots in a small space' is how Mickelson describes it now. 'It kind of carries over to the way I like to play when I get in a tournament.'
 
So, why doesn't Lefty play better in the British Open?
 
This tournament would seem custom-made for a player with Mickelson's imagination. His is a huge repertoire of improbable shots, the necessary trait on a links course where the ball can be just as effective scooting close to the ground as it is soaring majestically through the air -- especially when those stiff winds starting whipping in off the sea.
 
But Mickelson, with two Masters titles and one PGA Championship on his resume (not to mention all sorts of close calls in the majors), has never fared very well on this side of the Atlantic.
 
He did have a third-place showing at Royal Troon in 2004, missing by a mere stroke the playoff won by Todd Hamilton over Ernie Els. But that's the only time Mickelson has come close to contending, failing to crack the top 10 in his other 13 Open appearances.
 
That stands in stark contrast to his record in the remaining three majors, where he is a perennial contender.
 
'It's taken time for me to appreciate and learn how to hit shots that are manageable in those conditions,' Mickelson said. 'As I start to be able to control my golf ball in those conditions, I start to enjoy it and hope for tough weather.'
 
Mickelson grew up (and still lives) in sunny Southern California. He attended college in the desert at Arizona State. Hardly the sort of conditions that prepare one for the rain and wind and cold of Scotland, the birthplace of golf.
 
'The wind here might be the same speed as in Phoenix, but it's amazing how much more the ball gets affected by it,' Mickelson said.
 
For that very reason, two-time defending champion Tiger Woods played sideways during a practice round Monday, hoping to diminish the 30 mph gusts.
 
When he got to the 18th hole, a 499-yard straight shot that can be reached with a big iron and a short iron on calm days, Woods hit a 2-iron about waist-high toward the adjacent 17th fairway.
 
Finding the short grass, he slapped another 2-iron back toward the 18th fairway, which is crossed twice by the Barry Burn. And, sticking with the same club, Woods struck another one toward the green, only to catch a bunker along the right side.
 
Nevertheless, he was pleased to even be considering such an unorthodox option.
 
'I love playing over here, because it allows you to be creative,' Woods said. 'Augusta used to be that way. The U.S. Open is obviously not. The PGA is kind of similar to a U.S. Open setup. Over here, you can create shots. You get to use the ground as an ally.'
 
The ground was Woods' best friend a year ago at Royal Liverpool.
 
After a few practice rounds on the dry fairways, Woods realized he was better off leaving his driver in the bag. He hit it only once over four rounds, opting for irons short of the bunkers and long to mid-irons into the greens. The strategy worked to perfection, and Woods captured the claret jug for the second straight year.
 
He arrived at Carnoustie with a chance to win three in a row, a feat accomplished by only four other players at a championship that dates to 1860. The last was Peter Thomson in 1954-56.
 
Would Mickelson consider leaving his driver in the bag, especially after some errant tee shots cost him a win in the Scottish Open last weekend? Not likely, especially on the rain-soaked fairways that have created American-style conditions.
 
'I'm very pleased with it,' Mickelson said of his big club. 'I didn't drive it the best on Sunday. But I hit 13 fairways on Saturday. I hit a good number of them on Thursday and Friday as well. I'm not overly concerned.'
 
The key, he said, is keeping the ball low when the wind starts blowing. And in the fairway, of course, though Carnoustie, with its soggy grass and shaved rough, is hardly the same beast that it was in 1999, when Paul Lawrie won in a playoff after Jean Van de Velde's improbable collapse on the 72nd hole.
 
That year, the best score in regulation was 6 over.
 
Mickelson missed the cut in '99, but he's made it to the weekend of every Open since then. At Troon, he nearly broke through.
 
'I played along the ground a lot that week,' he said. 'I hit a lot of low shots, a lot of running shots, and I was able to control distances, make a lot of pars and some birdies when I needed to. Missing out on the playoff was a big point for me because I finally had a good performance where I felt I could win and was inches away from doing it.'
 
Mickelson should have won last weekend at Loch Lomond, but three bogeys on his final five holes handed the Scottish Open title to lightly regarded Frenchman Gregory Havret in a playoff.
 
An errant drive cost Mickelson on the final hole of regulation, and an even worse tee shot on the very same hole led to a bogey that quickly ended the playoff.
 
It was shades of the 2006 U.S. Open, thrown away by Mickelson with a double-bogey on the very last hole. After getting to Carnoustie, he had a long talk with coach Butch Harmon.
 
'It was certainly disappointing to finish the way I did, especially making the mistakes I made coming down the stretch,' Mickelson said. 'We talked about a couple of things that we wanted to do with the clubs off the tee and how to take certain places out of play.
 
'It's still a work in progress.'
 
Even after all those shots in the backyard.
 
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