Phil Mickelson’s hopes of finally breaking through his long history of Open Championship frustration were emboldened Sunday with his first victory in Europe in 20 years.
In winning the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links, Mickelson takes two essential assets to Muirfield this week in his bid to win his first British Open. He takes confidence and momentum. He’ll need them in reserve to break through in an event that has made him look so ordinary over the years.
Mickelson has won on so many different venues over the years, but, until Sunday, he practically looked allergic to links courses overseas. The heather, gorse and fescue were pieces of a maddening puzzle he could never quite figure out. Same with the humps, hollows, knobs and swales over there. And the seaside winds? Forget it. They routinely blew away whatever pieces he did manage to figure out.
In 19 British Open starts, Mickelson has just two top-10 finishes, by far his worst record in the major championships. Two years ago, he tied for second at Royal St. George’s, his best finish in that major, only to come back and miss the cut last year.
If the only time you ever saw Mickelson play was in a British Open, you wouldn’t believe he was a Hall of Famer. He has too often looked clueless trying to play the ball along the ground over there.
Not anymore, we think.
With his victory Sunday, on a Scottish seaside course, Mickelson’s belief that he is finally piecing together the puzzle of links golf is emboldened if not entirely confirmed.
Mickelson always has an angle. It’s what so many love about him. Whether it’s five wedges, two drivers or no drivers in his bag, he sees the game differently than the rest of us. That’s why the British Open so frustrates him. He can’t see the angles, literally. Or he hasn’t been able to see them, but he believes that’s changing. Instead of only seeing how a course can best be attacked through the air, he is beginning to see the routes along the ground and how that dramatically changes the angles of attack.
Winning at Castle Stuart meant a lot to Mickelson.
“It's important to me, and it's probably the biggest challenge of my career hitting the shots that are required here,” he told reporters afterward. “And so to win here and to play well here, finally win on a links golf course, it really means a lot to me, and it also builds my confidence heading into future Scottish and British Opens.”
Despite the deep disappointment of his sixth second-place finish at the U.S. Open last month, and the aggravation of failing to close out the Scottish Open in regulation this weekend, Mickelson says he’s excited about the state of his game. At 43, he goes to Muirfield armed with the arsenal he believes gives him a strong shot at breaking through to add the claret jug to his Masters green jackets and PGA Championship trophy.
Mickelson loves the way he is driving the ball. He navigated so well through Merion’s narrow corridors last month. He was also good making his way along Castle Stuart’s more generous fairways this weekend. Mickelson also loves the way he’s putting.
“The weaknesses in my game the last four or five years has been, especially, driving the golf ball and putting, and those two areas have become strengths right now,” Mickelson said before teeing it up at the Scottish Open.
Of course, Mickelson was the only player among the top 25 in the world playing the weekend at the Scottish Open. The favorable weather most of the week also wasn’t typically what you expect in a Scottish event played along the sea. And if you watched Sunday, you saw just enough untidiness in Mickelson’s game to make you wonder if he’ll find another detour to the prize. Mickelson, as is his modus operandi, made his victory more wildly entertaining than even he would have liked. There was the double bogey at the opening hole, where he had to gouge his way out of the rough and then missed a 3-foot putt for bogey. There was that chip at the third hole, where the ball never quite reached the green before rolling back to his feet. And there was that bogey at the last, where a simple par at the par-5 closing hole seemed a foregone conclusion until he three-putted from 20 feet to force him to beat Branden Grace in a playoff.
“This is really cool,” said Mickelson, whose only other title in Europe came in a Challenge Tour event in Paris in 1993. “I have been coming here for some time and had some opportunities and I almost let it slip away today. To come out on top was terrific.”
It was terrific in fortifying the confidence and momentum Mickelson will need at Muirfield.