LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – “I don’t know. I just don’t know what to tell you.”
Those were the words of Phil Mickelson after a second-round 8-over 78 at the Open Championship that left him 11 over through two rounds, easily on the wrong side of the cutline and well behind such little-known competitors as Nicholas Cullen, Koumei Oda and Steven O’Hara.
Should it come as a surprise? Well, it depends which Mickelson you expected to see.
There’s the Mickelson who is clearly struggling with his game. The one who has now failed to break par in 11 of his last 13 rounds. The one who shot 73 on Thursday and punctuated it by saying, “I putted poorly today and I drove it horrific and the chipping was below average. … I hit it terribly.”
This is the same guy who has clearly never taken to links golf, based on his hapless record in this tournament. The one who owns just a pair of top-10s in 18 previous starts. The one who has never claimed a claret jug amongst his four major titles.
For this Mickelson, the answer is clear. No, we shouldn’t be surprised by his early departure.
Then there’s the Mickelson who is amongst the most elite players to ever play the game, already a World Golf Hall of Fame member at 42. The one whose age also matches his career professional victory total. The one who sounded optimistic after that aforementioned 73, saying, “If you get the ball in the fairway off the tee you can shoot a low score here. If I can get it in play off the tee, I can get a low round going tomorrow.”
This is the same player who appeared to turn a corner last year at Royal St. Georges, finishing in a share of second place. The one whose record of four majors also includes 33 total top-10 results in these events. The one who recently explained he was “looking forward to links golf,” exuding justified enthusiasm for this tournament.
For this Mickelson, the answer is also clear. Yes, we should always allow for some level of surprise when a player of his caliber fails to reach the weekend at a major championship.
But this is less about what we think of the lefthander’s performance – or lack thereof – and more about what he thought of it.
Following the round, he seemed not only frustrated, but perplexed. The reaction was less about the result and more about the process that took place in getting to this point.
“The scores are just so far off,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I thought that I was going to have a little bit better round than I did. It certainly got away from me there the last five holes.
“I hit the ball more solid. I hit it in the middle of the face all day, but I just didn’t quite hit it where I wanted and I hit it in a lot of bad spots.”
That’s been a familiar refrain for Mickelson as of late, with just a lone top-10 finish in his last eight worldwide starts.
If there’s cause for optimism, it’s that directly after walking off the course, he was already looking ahead to when and how he can right the ship.
“I feel like I have some direction for the next week, but I feel like I have a ways to go,” he explained. “I’ll work with [instructor] Butch [Harmon] the next two weeks and see if I can get some direction and I’ll see if I can get a bit better frame of mind these next two months, because we have some big tournaments. I’ve got a lot of work to do these next 10 days to get ready.”
The other reason for positivity is simply because he’s Phil Mickelson.
No player in the current era – or perhaps ever – has more frequently and notoriously shifted from looking awful to awesome on a week-to-week basis. Or vice versa.
We need only look at this season’s results as Exhibit A for this behavioral pattern. In his first three starts, Mickelson failed to record a top-25 result, later claiming that he was worried about the state of his game.
In his next two starts, he won convincingly at Pebble Beach and lost in a playoff at Riviera. Next two after that? A 43rd place and a 24th. The two after that? A fourth and a third. After those? A 26th and 25th.
Rinse and repeat.
And so if any world-class player should hit a stumbling block, perhaps the one we should least worry about scrambling back to his feet is Mickelson, who has displayed a propensity for doing just that time and time again.
That doesn’t mean Mickelson himself isn’t worried right now. At a loss to decipher his recent struggles after missing the cut, he continually went back to the same confession.
“I just don’t know what to tell you...”
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, maybe it should. But it certainly comes as a disappointment to a player who had little explanation for it.