SANDWICH, England – One of the longtime criticisms of Phil Mickelson has been that he overthinks a situation, especially when it comes to major championships. He’s been called a know-it-all on more than one occasion.
Remember the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines when Mickelson showed up to play the behemoth without a driver in his bag? Several times, including this year, he’s showed up to Augusta National with two drivers in his bag for The Masters – one that drives it 15-20 yards longer than the other.
People have often wondered why Mickelson is the only player who comes up with these off-the-wall strategies. If they made sense, or had the potential to help, wouldn’t more people adopt similar philosophies?
Maybe this time, however, he’s onto something. Mickelson, who often comes into a news conference with a point or a message that he wants to hammer home, said Tuesday that he wanted to treat this week like it was the first time he had ever played the Open Championship.
So far, so good. Mickelson has shot 70-69 to stand at 1-under-par 139 and is only three shots behind the leaders.
“It’s fun to be in contention at any major,” Mickelson said. “But it’s fun for me to be in contention at the Open Championship because I haven’t been here that often. So, to have a chance to be right in it, it’s exciting.”
It’s no surprise that Lefty and links golf do not love each other. Why they don’t have more of a connection is the bigger question. In a format that can deliver awkward bounces, strange weather and more thinking around the course, it doesn’t make sense why golf’s most creative player, a man who can get up and down from anywhere, wouldn’t play better in this event.
But the two haven’t jived. In 17 previous British Opens Mickelson has only one top-10 finish, that a third-place in 2004 at Royal Troon where he finished only a shot out of a playoff between Ernie Els and eventual winner Todd Hamilton.
Given the lack of success it’s understandable why Mickelson would want to shake things up, pretend like he and the Open Championship are meeting for the first time.
“I just wanted to start fresh,” Mickelson said. “I just had to really enjoy the challenge of it more.”
The thought process has been effective.
Mickelson clearly did not have his best stuff Thursday but gutted out a 70, including a par on the last hole when he hit a marshal off the tee, hit his approach short, right of the green and still got up and down. Even in that situation Mickelson claims he knew he would make par because he was determined to take what the course gave him more than in the past.
After the round he opened up about a game plan he’s been working on that will get him back to the same consistent player the golf world has known for the past 20 years. He wouldn’t elaborate but did say that he is not pleased with his performance this year on the PGA Tour and he feels like he’s not thinking his way around the course as clearly as he should.
“I feel pretty good about the direction I’m heading,” Mickelson said.
Presumably, Friday’s 69 was another step in the process. The conditions seemed primed for scoring – Lefty clearly was on the better end of the draw – but the wind picked up and hole locations on the easier holes were tucked in places that made birdie difficult.
“I certainly think the work he does with Butch [Harmon] is going to show that much more here than elsewhere,” said Mickelson’s caddie, Bones Mackay. “Today would be a perfect example. It’s a case of his ballstriking getting better and better.”
Mickelson has been working on a low trajectory 3-wood off the tee specifically for this championship. He says he’s been able to get the ball on the ground quicker and watch it roll long distances. This way he doesn’t fight the wind as much, which here will put you in positions you don’t want to be.
“If you’re going to win this tournament you’re going to have to hit it where you’re looking in a big way,” Mackay said.
If he is going to win, or even continue to contend for his first Open Championship, Mickelson is going to have to get along more with his balky putter. Through two rounds he’s needed 62 total putts (31 putts in each round) and has missed three short putts. Thursday he missed an 18-inch putt. Friday he missed a putt inside 5 feet for eagle and another 3-footer for birdie.
“I felt so much better with the putter heading in,” he said. “I haven’t putted as well as I expect to, but I’m putting better than I have in the past on these greens. It’s getting there.”
The next two days will either prove to be more like the previous 17 years or a breakthrough of epic proportions for this generation’s second-best player, which would leave him only the U.S. Open away from the career grand slam.
Perhaps this time, overthinking was precisely the proper approach.