Under the Radar


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – In the buildup to this Open Championship, most of the talk has been that there doesn’t seem to be a clear favorite. Sure, the local St. Andrews betting parlors have Tiger Woods as the one they predict will take home the claret jug but those in the know believe it’s not as much of a lock.

Other names thrown around have been Justin Rose, the hottest player on the planet and winner of two PGA Tour events in the past month, and Rory McIlroy, the young Northern Irishman who has not shot anything higher than 69 in competition at the Old Course. Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood have also been bandied about.

It’s a tad comical that the man who could become No. 1 in the world by Sunday hasn’t been talked about at all. Funny how a 20-minute chat can change impressions so drastically.

Phil Mickelson
Mickelson has just one top-10 finsih in 17 attempts at The Open Championship. (Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson comes into this Open unlike he did at his Open a month ago. There he was the favorite. Here he is somewhat of an afterthought. There he was supposed to be in contention at Pebble Beach. This is a championship where he has struggled in the past because he seemingly hasn’t found a way to make peace with links golf.

Perhaps this week is different. Mickelson seems to have a pep in his step, one he attributes to being at the home of golf. He went so far as to call St. Andrews “spiritual” because you can’t help but feel a sense of spirituality while walking around a golf course where the game began. Spiritual was the exact word Tom Watson used last year to describe his run for another jug.

But let’s be honest, it’s still about the golf. It’s still about chasing that little white ball around these sacred grounds in fewer strokes than anyone else. And Mickelson hasn’t had much success at doing so in this championship, having only recorded one top-10 finish in 17 previous attempts, that being a third-place in 2004 at Royal Troon.

“It wasn’t until 2004 that I started playing the wind effectively,” Mickelson said. “Even when I would hit low shots, I would have way too much spin on it. It wasn’t until 2004 that I had kind of an epiphany of how to do that by taking more club and swinging easier and so forth.”

Mickelson truly believes that you can throw out his Open résumé this week. It means nothing he would have you believe. He’s in great spirits, was playful and engaging during his Tuesday news conference and genuinely was believable when he said he thinks he can win this championship.

The golf course is a huge factor, too. Aside from his spiritual connection to the Old Course, he feels that it’s the course on the Open rota that bests suits his game and his aggressive nature. There is plenty of room off the tee and driver will be an option for him more often than not, something that hasn’t been the case at places like Birkdale and Hoylake.

Besides all the above, Lefty knows that in order to be known as one of the greatest players in the history of golf, he needs to win an Open Championship. He needs to prove that he can conquer the game on all levels. He also is keenly aware of the list of champions at the Old Course and seems determined to join that mix.

“I think if you win all four majors you’ve shown yourself to be a complete player,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t won the U.S. Open Championship or the Open Championship, and I’d like to win both of those.”

With it would come that little carrot that has been dangling over his head for the past couple months. If Mickelson is the champion golfer of the year and sees his name atop the yellow leaderboard Sunday afternoon, he’ll reach the No. 1 ranking in the world no matter where Woods finishes.

“I think it would be something that if I were to accomplish in my career, whether it was just for one week or a month or a year, however long, just to be able to say you did it, especially in Tiger’s era, it would be incredible,” Mickelson said. “I know that my window of opportunity is small because Tiger is going to start playing some of his better golf here soon, so I’ve got to get my butt in gear.

“I’m going to try hard to do that this week.”

It may be a good idea to add Mickelson to that list of favorites this week.