Mickelson loses Open without doing anything wrong

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2016, 8:45 pm

TROON, Scotland – Even for a man accustomed to major-championship heartbreak, Phil Mickelson had no idea how to digest this loss Sunday at the 145th Open.

It wasn’t the 2006 U.S. Open, where he butchered the 72nd hole.

It wasn’t the 2012 Masters, where he clanked a tee shot off a grandstand in the final round.

It wasn’t the 2013 U.S. Open, where he misjudged two wedge shots late on the back nine.

This was … maybe even more dispiriting?

“It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” he said.

Mickelson lost to a sublime Henrik Stenson and had nothing to second-guess. Not a different club off a tee. Not a different yardage with an iron shot. Not a different line with a putt.

Vying to become the oldest Open winner since 1867, the 46-year-old Hall of Famer shot a bogey-free 65 Sunday, tied the second-lowest score in a major by a non-winner (267) and carded the lowest final-round score of his career. He found fairways with ease and saved par from the heather and made only four bogeys all week at Royal Troon.

And yet he still lost. By three.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about that,” he said. “I’m proud of the way I played. I played what I feel was well enough to win this championship by a number of strokes, and yet I got beat by three strokes.

“It’s not like I have decades of opportunities left to win majors, so each one means a lot to me. And I put in my best performance today. Played close to flawless golf and was beat.”

And so here comes another test of his legendary resilience. Throughout his 25-year career, no one has learned how to deal with failure better than Mickelson. His 11 runners-up in majors are the second-most all time, behind only Jack Nicklaus (19). The narrow defeats, many of them self-inflicted, are a significant part of Lefty’s legacy, as much as his five majors or his 42 PGA Tour titles.

After the most crushing loss of his career at Merion, after it finally appeared that he was damaged goods, Mickelson summoned arguably his greatest performance just a month later, a flawless Sunday 66 to capture the Muirfield Open. In the aftermath, he raved about how he was playing the best golf of his life, at age 43.

That didn’t pan out, of course, and his game deteriorated over the past few years. After recording at least six top-10s in 16 consecutive seasons, and 10 in a row with a victory, he has mustered only four top-10s the last two seasons combined. His world ranking tumbled outside the top 30.

During the offseason, he made the difficult decision to leave legendary swing coach Butch Harmon, with whom he’d enjoyed the most success, in favor of little-known Andrew Getson, who helped put Mickelson’s long, free-flowing swing back on plane. “It’s taken him a fair amount of time to play golf instead of swing,” said Mickelson’s longtime short-game coach, Dave Pelz, “but he looks great now.”

Never better than at Royal Troon, where Mickelson came within a fraction of an inch, or a pebble, from shooting the first 62 in a major. A day later, in pounding rain, he grabbed his first 36-hole lead in a major in three years. And even when his swing abandoned him during a blustery third round, he turned a 77 into a 70 with his magical short game.  

Caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay reported that Mickelson’s warmup Sunday was “incredible,” similar to Muirfield in 2013, and then Mickelson put on a ball-striking clinic for four unforgettable hours.

Unfortunately for him, so did Stenson. They matched birdies, opening 32s and swapped the lead five times on the front nine. Mickelson climbed back into the lead on 11 and scrambled to an all-world par on 12, but Stenson, better known for his ball-striking prowess than his putter, caught fire coming home. An 18-footer for birdie on 14. A 50-footer on 15.

“I had to make 30-, 40-footers just to try to keep pace with him,” Mickelson said.

It appeared that he might pull even on the par-5 16th, but his 25-foot eagle putt took a peek at the cup and dove left at the final moment. “I really thought that was going to go in,” he said.

Stenson poured it on with a birdie of his own on 16, a macho long iron to 8 feet on 17 and then an exclamation point on the last to shoot a two-bogey 63 and set the major aggregate scoring record of 20-under 264.

Mickelson’s four-round total of 267 would have won or forced a playoff in 141 of the 145 Opens played. So superb was his golf, he was 11 shots clear of the third-place finisher, J.B. Holmes.

“We’ll never see perfection on a links like that ever again in our lives,” said Nick Faldo, a three-time Open champion. “There’s no way. For them to match each other, it was links perfection. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

That’s little solace to Mickelson, of course. Though players are staying competitive longer – a combination of better technology, better equipment and better fitness – it’s reasonable to wonder how many more chances he’ll have to add to his collection of five major titles.

“The only good thing is he didn’t lose it,” Faldo said. “You’re going to lose majors, but Phil will say that I did everything I could, I was just faced against a man who outscored me at the end.

“There’s no discrediting that at all. You won’t be scarred by that loss. Sure, you’ll look back at the bits and bobs, but one man won it, the other man didn’t lose it.”

Said Mackay: “That’s as good of a tournament as I’ve seen him play, if ever.”

Mickelson looked dazed when he emerged from the Recorders’ Office, two Ziploc bags full of snacks in his right hand. He smiled his way through a trophy presentation, praised Stenson and answered 15 questions during a packed news conference. Still, he labored to find the right words, to come to grips with how he could play so well and lose.

“Do you now finally know how Jack Nicklaus felt in ’77?” a reporter asked, alluding to the famed Duel in the Sun at Turnberry, where Tom Watson (65) nipped Nicklaus (66) on the final day in one of the game’s greatest head-to-head clashes.

“I understand how it feels,” Mickelson replied. “It’s bittersweet.”

Afterward, Mickelson, flanked by his longtime manager, Steve Loy, made a beeline for his room at The Marine Hotel, which overlooks Troon’s 18th fairway. He signed yellow replica flags for teenaged volunteers decked out in the R&A’s blue rain suits. He breezed past the hubbub on the front lawn of the clubhouse, where Andrew “Beef” Johnston, wearing a Scottish cap, was taking swigs from a Heineken and posing for pictures. He walked all the way to the far end of the player parking lot and onto Crosby Street, past two unsuspecting fans. And, never breaking stride, he climbed over a short rock wall and sped toward the back entrance of the hotel, despite the “No Entry” sign printed on the window.

Slapping Loy on the back, Mickelson stepped inside, the beginning of what figured to be a restless night. Another major week was only eight days away.

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

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“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

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How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

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“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.