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Hawk's Nest: Feeling better about Phil's chances

Phil Mickelson
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Twenty swings. That’s how long the honeymoon lasts after purchasing a new club – doesn’t matter whether it’s a 60-degree wedge or a $299 driver. You take the stick for a test-drive and it behaves wonderfully. You walk into the pro shop and hear all the right things. Optimism rules. Life is about to get a lot better.

And for a couple of rounds, life does, but like a college girlfriend or your first real job, things begin to go south soon after you make the commitment. What worked last weekend doesn’t work anymore. Those 15 extra yards? Twelve are heading dead-right. That backspin out of the bunker disappears like someone who has fallen two car payments behind.

You see, golf clubs are people, too. They are moody and opportunistic. They have friends back in the pro shop who haven’t been bought – all that stuff about birds of a feather is true. Before long, distress leads to disgust, which yields a hapless realization. Maybe you’re just not very good.

You’ll be back, of course. Golf has a way of recycling the pain, a method of turning sheer incompetence into 20 gallons of hope. Some would call that perverse. The rest of us call it an industry.

DID SOMEONE SAY pain? Phil Mickelson has a few war wounds in his medical history. Six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, a near-impossible accomplishment when you think about, but also four major titles and 41 PGA Tour victories while trading elbows with the most prolific winner the game has ever seen.

Over the duration of his stellar career, however, no tournament has given Mickelson more trouble than the Open Championship, which is why Sunday’s triumph at the Scottish Open came decked out in so much intrigue. Does beating Branden Grace in a playoff instantly vault Lefty onto the short list at Royal Muirfield? Has he finally found an antidote for his links-golf allergy?

Before we delve into the immediate future, let us quickly review Lefty’s hefty past. Only twice has he seriously factored at the British – a T-3 in 2004, a T-2 with Dustin Johnson behind Darren Clarke in 2011. Neither featured one of Mickelson’s late faltering acts, so this is a very different animal than the one he dealt with at Merion last month.

That said, emotional baggage really doesn’t exist in Mickelson’s world. I’ve known the guy for the better part of two decades. My wife worked with him when he was wearing Hugo Boss apparel back in the late 1990s, and for a while, we were all fairly close. The baby gifts we received from Phil and Amy upon the birth of my oldest daughter remain prized family possessions.

I can only laugh when I host my live chats and come across suggestions that Mickelson is “done.” He’s like those “Friday the 13th” movies in that he never stops coming – we’re talking resiliency as an art form. Would I wager on Philly Mick making big noise or even winning at Muirfield? No, but I wouldn’t be shocked. The win at Castle Stuart certainly makes his case a better one, and there are other reasons to believe he can bust out a run for the claret jug.

• No question, Mickelson is a happier guy and more productive player when his family is around, as is the case on this overseas trip. Some might find that notion silly, but for many years, he traveled without his wife and kids to play in the British. I realize he’s a grown man and all, but that doesn’t mean it was a trip he was dying to make. Removed from the comforts of his native culture, I think Mickelson used to get a little bored Over There, and his competitive edge would suffer.

• When you’re born and raised in Southern California, you don’t play much golf on breezy, rainy, 53-degree days. The same could be said of Tiger Woods, whose three British Open titles all came in nice weather – two of the weeks were absolute scorchers. Mother Nature was in good spirits again at Castle Stuart, which certainly helps explain why Philly Mick hung around until Sunday, then snatched a victory when others began stumbling.

Lord only knows what fun stuff they’ll play in this week, but at age 43, Mickelson has gotten to the point where he knows he doesn’t have a ton of major championship starts left in his career. Mentally, he’s more prepared for anything thrown at him. His focus is sharper, his attitude healthier. His appreciation of the links dynamic has become obvious, which wasn’t exactly the case a decade ago.

• He may not be the greatest wind player who ever lived, but more than perhaps any top-tier tour pro, Mickelson is a right-brain type who relies on shot-making instinct and visualization to be successful. His legendary short game hasn’t been such an asset at the British, where the ground causes the ball to do different things, but for years, he’s been flying over early to play in the Scottish Open, looking not only to get acclimated, but for a competitive spark.

This year, he finally got it. I still can’t say I fancy his chances as much as I do some others, but I like them a lot more than I did five years ago. Or last week, for that matter.

THE IDEA OF a 19-year-old winning a PGA Tour event doesn’t blow my mind. I’m actually a bit surprised that Jordan Spieth became the first teenager to do it in 82 years, given the number of weak fields on the schedule and the evolution of kids capable of competing at the highest level in every sport. Sergio Garcia almost won a PGA Championship when he was 19. Fourteen years later, he’s still looking for that first major.

What I find more impressive is the body of work Spieth has compiled in his rookie season: the win at John Deere, a runner-up in Puerto Rico and four other top 10s. Just four missed cuts in 16 starts – that’s not something you see very often from an honest-to-goodness, first-year pro. For all the hotshots that come and go, Spieth is the closest thing to a lock for stardom since Rory McIlroy.

OK, so McIlriches isn’t exactly a grizzled vet. Put it this way: I think Spieth will win more tournaments than Keegan Bradley. He has a premium pedigree – Tiger Woods is the only other player to win multiple U.S. Junior Amateurs. He is an ultra-driven young man, having left the University of Texas after his freshman year, a move many thought questionable.

Then you look at Spieth’s stats. Eighth in the all-around category? That’s crazy for a rookie. Eleventh in total driving, 20th in driving accuracy? Most fellas his age can’t find the fairway with two detectives and a 4-wood. That Spieth ranks 113th on Tour in putting doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He’s playing almost all of these courses for the first time, trying to make birdies on greens he’s never seen.

As highly as I think of Bradley, which isn’t quite as high as many others, I’m interested to see how he’ll perform once the anchored-putter ban goes into effect. The longer I think about it, the more 6-footers I miss myself, the greater the impact I think the ban will impart on the competitive landscape. Meanwhile, nobody will remember this next line:

Jordan Spieth will win a U.S. Open at some point over the next five years. Feel free to tell me what a genius I am after it happens.

True story: I’m covering the 2009 Presidents Cup in San Francisco, my last event at Golf World, and the United States has just crushed the Internationals yet again. It’s about an hour after the final putt, the news conferences have just ended, and I run into Mickelson in the Harding Park parking lot.

“Man, you’re getting fat,” he tells me. “You need to get on a treadmill or something.” Needless to say, I bit my tongue, but only because it doesn’t contain any calories. Mickelson was right – I’d gotten wider than a three-car garage and probably gained a few more pounds just looking at my favorite lefthander.

So I followed his advice. I changed my eating habits, at least for a while, and found a way to exercise without entertaining thoughts of suicide. Hey, if I can lose 22 pounds, Phil Mickelson definitely can win a British Open.