My career…is built on failure,” he said. And then paused, seemingly to introspect on that self-reflection. Hardly the sort of candour from a player on the eve of a Major championship...
My career…is built on failure,” he said. And then paused, seemingly to introspect on that self-reflection. Hardly the sort of candour from a player on the eve of a Major championship, especially one that the man in question wants more than any other player in the world. And who will always be rankled by his litany of near-misses—six runner-up finishes—at the US Open than comforted by his 51 career wins.
Phil Mickelson didn’t contend over the weekend at Oakmont last month, which, in his book, is possibly better than coming within a whisker of winning his national open (there’s only so much angst a man can handle). More crucially, that go-for-broke swing seemed to be off tempo. He made lots of misreads on the greens and his fabled short game—possibly the finest in contemporary golf—just wasn’t there.
Mickelson’s wry comment—the reference to his pattern of bouncing back from failures at the US Open with subsequent wins at other events—seems remarkably prescient, given his antics at the Open Championship over the first two days. At the time this column was written, Lefty sits on top of the leaderboard at an astonishing ten-under-par—a two-day scoring record at The Open—fired by a ridiculous eight-under 63 on the opening day of the tournament.
Circa 2013. Mickelson is leading the Open Championship being played at Merion with nine holes to go on the final day. Inexplicably, and mostly on account of his typical aggressive play, he bogeys three of the last six holes to lose the lead, even failing to get into the playoff. Self-admittedly, Mickelson has spoken about the meltdown at Merion as his greatest disappointment. What is golfing lore, though, is not just the way he lost that tournament, but how he bounced back the following month to notch up possibly his biggest triumph—at the 2013 Open Championship.
Cue to the present: Lefty seems to have ironed out the rough spots that had crept into his swing and is not only swinging and scoring well, but brimming with confidence. The five-time major-winner told BBC Sport on Friday night: “If I look back to my mid-30s, I am 35 lbs lighter, in better shape than I was and can manage the symptoms of my psoriatic arthritis. I feel stronger and in a better condition than I have ever been. I can’t see why I can’t play my best golf in the coming years. I am optimistic about this week and the coming years and the opportunities to add to my resume.”
Lefty got a fair bit of help from the heavens for his opening 63: he teed off in benign morning conditions and slammed in eight birdies before the wind and rain came into play for the groups teeing off in the afternoon. On Friday, he again made the most of overcast yet calm conditions and nearly aced the eighth hole, covering the front nine in 33. The skies opened up when he hit the turn and he dropped his first shot of the tournament at the par-four 12th, but held his ground as others fell away.
Mickelson’s feats were amplified by the less-than-ideal efforts of playing partners Lee Westwood and Ernie Els, who carded a 73 and 76, respectively. Two-time champion Els ended up missing the cut by one shot that was applied at four-over-par.
Nipping at Lefty’s heels, though, is the fastest swinger in the pro ranks—Henrik Stenson—who lies one shot back at nine-under-par. The Swede has been a bit off his game this entire season and will be keen to gather momentum going into the playoffs next month. Interestingly, it was Stenson who battled with Mickelson down the stretch in the 2013 Open Championship, finally finishing bridesmaid to the American on that occasion. A Stenson vs Mickelson duel tonight makes for a tantalising prospect.
A lot will depend on how the par-71 Royal Troon will be set up for the final round and how the weather holds up. Spread on links at Scotland’s rugged west coast, Royal Troon—founded in 1878—is one of golf’s most prestigious courses. Non-English golfers have won the majority of the Opens played at Troon: a stat that augurs well for both Mickelson and Stenson. An even more interesting nugget is that for five of those winners, the win has been their only major triumph. In 1989, Mark Calcavecchia beat Wayne Grady and Greg Norman in a three-way playoff to win the title. Justin Leonard went into the final round five shots back in 1997, but shot a sensational final round of 65 to win.
And who can forget Todd Hamilton getting the better of four-time Major-winner Ernie Els in 2004—possibly the biggest upset in the last few decades.
Is it possible for another underdog to lift the Claret Jug tonight? I’m becoming predictable in my unwavering support for Anirban Lahiri. The top-ranked Indian has acquitted himself rather well over the first two days, carding a two-under and one-over, respectively, and lies nine shots back of Mickelson going into the weekend. Is that too big a deficit? Possibly, but Lahiri is getting better with every outing at a links course and at major championships. Currently in tied-22nd spot, he should be very happy to get a top-10 finish.
A mention must be made of 17-year-old Phachara Khongwatmai making his debut at the Open this year. The Thai sensation made history when he won a professional tournament at the age of 14 years. The odds were stacked against him, literally, at 1,000–1, to emulate Young Tom Morris who was also 17 years old when he won the 1868 Open. What a life-changing experience for the youngster who missed the cut.
No, my money is firmly on Lefty, who hasn’t been reticent about admitting that he still considers the US Open—widely considered the toughest tournament in golf—the ultimate prize that will complete his career grand slam. But if he does go on to win at Troon tonight, he will join an elite band of two-time winners of the Open Championship—golf’s oldest major and the ‘true test of golf.’ As consolation prizes go, it really doesn’t get any better.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game