SANDWICH, England – Phil Mickelson has tried just about everything at the British Open, with very little success. He has tried about everything except hitting right-handed. He has tried high shots, low shots and everything in between, to no avail.
Yes, he is a high-ball hitter and the Open Championship presents windy ballparks suited to the ground game. Still, style aside, his poor record would appear to be one of golf’s great mysteries, right up there with the fact mulligans always seem to work out better than the original shots.
Mickelson is perhaps the most creative player in the game. He has enormous talent. He has been known to be a magician controlling a golf ball. He’s smart. He’s the second-best player of his generation. He has 39 PGA Tour victories, as many as Gene Sarazen and Tom Watson.
Yet in 22 British Opens, he has fared better than 11th just once – a third at the 2004 tournament at Royal Troon.
Little wonder, then, that Mickelson again was pelted with inquiries about the subject, early and often, Tuesday here at the Open at Royal St. George’s. He had barely sat down when someone asked the opening question of, “Are you puzzled by your British Open record?”
The short version of Mickelson’s answer is this: He’s trying something new this year. It’s called amnesia.
Forget the painful past. Scrape off the scar tissue. Enjoy the present moment. Embrace the challenge.
“I’m entering this year kind of like a fresh start, if you will,” he said. “I’m not going to worry about past performances. I’m going to try to learn and enjoy the challenge of playing links golf. And I’m having fun doing that.”
He certainly had a happy face on, even though he admitted to playing terribly in a practice round. He talked as if he’s making forgetfulness a wonderful experience.
“I’m trying to pretend like it’s my first time here and appreciate playing the ball on the ground on (windy, cold) days like this and appreciate being able to play some through the air when the wind is a bit calmer. … I feel excited and kind of reinvigorated to come over here and try to learn this style of golf and play it effectively. … I really enjoy playing here. I think it’s a fun challenge, whether I play well or not.”
For certain, his needle was stuck on that positive train of thought. Anytime his record was brought up, he punched the same button and out came that wide-eyed business about meeting links golf with a novice’s eye.
Mickelson, of course, broke a long major drought at the 2004 Masters only after making a mental adjustment. He decided to enjoy the journey and put less emphasis on results. The plan seemed to free him up.
This shift, he said, might fall under the same psychological umbrella.
“I’m not trying to fix any past poor play,” Mickelson said. “I’m trying to come here and play the way links golf should be played, along the ground, as effectively as I can. We can’t play through the air. We have to accept what the ground gives us when we have conditions like we had today.”
Later, Mickelson was asked whether he liked links golf or if he was just trying to talk himself into liking it. Different question, same key words.
“I’m really coming to enjoy and appreciate the challenge that links golf provides, and I’ve always enjoyed it,” he said, again sounding more like Tony Robbins than someone who annually has flown home frustrated. “I haven’t necessarily done it very well.”
Part of his problem, he said, has been his lack of success putting fescue greens. He claims he did better last week at the Scottish Open, that his ability to read and putt them raised his confidence.
But when asked how confident he is, he lapsed back into make-believe mode. While doing so, he hardly convinced that he will be hoisting a Claret Jug on Sunday.
“I’m trying to pretend I’ve never played here before and I’m just trying to learn it all from the start, from scratch,” he repeated. “So I don’t think I can say I’m going in confidently. I’m going in with an open mind on some of the new ideas to play the course and hopefully play it effectively.”
I am also entering Thursday with an open mind. I am open to the idea that I will not open my wallet and wager on Mickelson to win.
But, as a journalist, I am also open to the idea of Mickelson winning a British Open. I mean, who doesn’t like writing about the bizarre?