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How Mickelson became a great links player

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TROON, Scotland – His black rain suit was drenched, his feet soaked. He wore two gloves. He used a binder clip on his hat just to keep it from blowing away in the wind. And he marched around Royal Troon without an umbrella, inviting the sideways rain to pelt his face during a five-hour round.

All that misery Friday, and yet Phil Mickelson couldn’t stop smiling.

And why not?

After years of resisting, after countless Opens where he failed to adapt, he has finally given in. He’s finally stopped trying to overpower the golf courses here. At 46, he has finally embraced the vagaries of links golf, and the miserable conditions, so long as it remains fair for all 156 players in the field.

“I really enjoy the challenge that this weather and these elements provide,” he said.

Throughout his career, Mickelson has done most of his damage in ideal weather and at venues that suited his grip-it-and-rip-it game, but here he was hoping for the wind to howl and the rain to pound the course. He knew it would give him an advantage.

Much of his confidence stems from his first few sessions with short-game coach Dave Pelz back in 2003. At the time, Mickelson was 33, and major-less, and both he and Pelz agreed that the toughest event for him to win would be The Open, because it would require a complete overhaul of his aerial attack.

“He has a very descending blow, hits the ball very hard and has more spin on his wedges than most golfers in the world,” Pelz said by phone Friday. “That’s about the worst thing you can do over there in the wind.”

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And so he worked to take some of the spin off Mickelson’s shots with both his short and long clubs. He wanted to get the ball out of the air and on the ground as soon as possible.

“I was taught growing up that to hit the ball low, you scoot the ball back in your stance, which de-lofts the club,” Mickelson said. “The problem is you come in steeper and create a lot more spin. And even though the ball is flying low, it’s spinning. That’s what you don’t want.

“So now the only difference for me is I keep everything the same – ball position, swing, so forth. But I just shorten the backswing a little bit and accelerate through. It doesn’t have enough speed to create the same spin, but it comes in from a shallower angle of attack and gets the ball launching lower without the speed, without the spin.”

During a practice round at St. Andrews in 2005, Mickelson was hitting 150-yard shots from the middle of the fairway. He took two more clubs than usual, made a three-quarter swing and flew the ball about 100 yards, letting the ball run up the rest of the way. After Mickelson hit eight of the 10 balls onto the green, some of them tight, the course superintendent ambled over to Pelz.

“Is he really that good or is he just getting lucky?” he asked.

“He’s really getting pretty good,” Pelz said. “I think he has a chance to win over here.”

It would take until 2013, of course, before Mickelson finally broke through, but he called the win at Muirfield the most satisfying of his career. He isn’t shy about sharing his secret to links-golf success. He’s proud of how he’s become a complete player.

Mickelson has continued to use those lessons here at Royal Troon, where he posted two near-perfect rounds in wildly different conditions.

On Thursday, Mickelson was in complete control of his game while firing the first 63 ever at a Troon Open, his bid for history spinning out on the final green. On Friday, when an annoying rain pushed several players off-track, Mickelson carded four more birdies, dropped his only two shots of the week and remained in front, his second-round 69 leaving him one clear of Henrik Stenson (65). At 10-under 132, Mickelson matched his lowest 36-hole score in a major.

Watching back in Austin, Texas, Pelz was most pleased with Mickelson’s restraint off the tee. Instead of trying to fit a driver or 3-wood into a narrow fairway, Phil the Thrill sacrificed distance and opted for a low, running 2-iron on several holes.

“For the first time in 13 years together, I saw him hitting an iron off the par-5 tees, which is fabulous,” Pelz said. “I don’t care if he gets in trouble around the green – he’s the best wedge player in the world. But when he gets in trouble off the tee, that’s what kills you. This is the way I love to see him play.”

At 46, Mickelson would be the oldest Open champion since 1867, though he was quick to dismiss the relevance of the statistic. Compared to a decade ago, he is 25 pounds lighter, in better shape, physically stronger. “And now that my swing is back on plane,” he said, “I’m starting to hit some shots like I did 10 years ago and starting to play some of my best golf again. I don’t see why there’s any reason why I can’t continue that not just this week but for years.”

It was always assumed that Mickelson would factor the longest at the Masters, thanks to his love affair with Augusta and how well it suits the left-hander’s eye. But maybe it’s the Open (with four top-25s in the past five years) where he’ll experience the most long-term success. It was unthinkable about a decade ago, before his reinvention with Pelz.

“It was all new to him,” Pelz said, “but when he started doing it, it was like a whole other game and he liked it almost immediately. It’s taken a while, like it would for any player, but now he’s gotten very good at it. He’s embracing it more and more.”