HOYLAKE, England – Phil Mickelson had barely put lips to silver when he declared that his 2013 Open title was the greatest accomplishment of his career.
Green jackets look fabulous in a walk-in closet. A Wanamaker Trophy makes for a nice dining-room accessory. But for Mickelson, at least, the claret jug represented something different. After years of futility, after years of revamping his links game, he finally viewed himself as a complete player.
“This,” he said afterward, “has been the biggest challenge for me to overcome and capture this championship, this trophy.”
Mickelson’s first links experience came at the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock. Sure, he played well, and he enjoyed the uniqueness of playing the ball on the ground, but the allure began to wear off after all of the bad bounces and the high scores and the unpredictable conditions.
Besides, for the other 51 weeks of the year, Mickelson could play the way he was most comfortable – rearing back, teeing it high, letting it fly.
Generally speaking, the PGA Tour follows the sun, and the host sites are birdie-fests with light rough and receptive greens. Distance is rewarded. A high ball flight is preferred, occasionally required. And the player who putts the best on a given week is almost always in contention.
Video: Bubba's thoughts on Royal Liverpool and links golf
“But what works 51 weeks of the year doesn’t always work here,” said Justin Rose, and so players are left scrambling to reinvent their games for golf’s most drastic test.
Mickelson cracked the code in his 18th attempt, and he’s far from the only elite player to develop a love-hate relationship with the Open.
Rory McIlroy’s up-and-down T-3 in 2010 remains his only top 20.
Rose, a co-favorite this week along with McIlroy, has just one career top-10 – and that was back in 1998, as a 17-year-old amateur.
Masters champion Bubba Watson, arguably the most creative player in today’s game, doesn’t have a top-20. World No. 6 Jason Day doesn’t have a top-30.
Matt Kuchar, Mr. Consistency, has a single top-10 – the same number as major winners Martin Kaymer (six appearances) and Graeme McDowell (10).
Growing up, Rose played links courses almost exclusively in junior and amateur events. He grew accustomed to it. He came to enjoy it. Memories of his Friday 66 in brutal conditions at Birkdale still bring a smile to his face. Over time, though, his game evolved to play in the States, and for that he’s been richly rewarded, capturing the U.S. Open a year ago and rising to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
But, he said, “Sometimes as a pro we do soften. We play in such great conditions most of the time, and when you do get that really nasty day, you’re not as prepared or as ready for it as maybe an amateur would be. …
“I’ve had to just relearn a few of my old (links golf) tricks, I suppose. I don’t think you ever lose it; you just have to go and remember and get a few more rounds in, or get your eye in.”
Yes, there are a few tricks to learn. How to take off spin. How to play in a crosswind. How to escape the cavernous pot bunkers. But as much as anything, links golf is a mindset.
“You’ve got to relish the challenge,” McIlroy said last week at the Scottish Open, where his meeting with the media seemed more therapy session than news conference.
“It’s not like I haven’t played well on links courses before and in links conditions. It’s just getting back to that. Back when I was 15, 16, 17, playing links golf all the time, it wasn’t anything to put your wet gear on and play. Now, we’re so spoiled playing in great conditions.”
That’s a significant reason why McIlroy and Rose, last week’s winner, added the Scottish Open to their schedules. Royal Aberdeen offered both a proper links test – something that couldn’t be replicated on the range or at their home club – and an opportunity to play in meaningful conditions.
Adam Scott opted for a different route. The world No. 1 has been at Hoylake since last Thursday, logging 120 holes as he reacquainted himself with a track he hadn’t seen in eight years. Each year at this time he’s reminded of how different the two games are – the one he plays on a week-to-week basis, and the unique challenge of links golf. Here, a 2-iron might roll out to 330 yards, and on the next hole, into a stiff wind, a 4-iron goes about 150.
“To get your head around that is really tough,” he said. “A lot of it is feel, and you need a bit of time and you need to play to do that. You won’t find that on the range because you’re not really paying attention to how far the ball is going. You’re looking at how straight it’s going. It’s a big adjustment.”
Said Watson, “The sad thing is that it’s one week out of the year. I’m coming over here trying to learn the game real fast or learn the style of golf real fast. So far it hasn’t worked out well for me.”
Meanwhile, another Watson – Tom – has enjoyed far greater success at the Open. He has hoisted the claret jug five times and, in 2009, at age 59, came within 8 feet of authoring one of the greatest sports stories ever. Watson recalled this week that he didn’t enjoy links courses until a trip with Sandy Tatum. They played several of the classics the week before the 1981 Open – Ballybunion and Royal Dornoch and Royal Troon and Prestwick. By that time Watson had already captured three Open titles, including the famous “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus in 1977, but he still didn’t like the fact that there were blind shots, that the course wasn’t right there in front of him.
Finally, on that trip, he surrendered. “I decided to stop fighting them and join them,” he said.
Mickelson had a similarly enlightening moment in December 2003, when his work with short-game guru Dave Pelz finally clicked.
A decade later, he captured the Open with a round-of-his-life 66 on Sunday. He described the moment afterward as “as fulfilling a career accomplishment as I could ever imagine.”
Because after mastering links golf, if only for a week, he finally viewed himself as a complete player.