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LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – He wore one glove. He donned two gloves. He played in short sleeves and then he played in a rainsuit beneath an umbrella. He made crisp birdies. He made sloppy bogeys. He even threw one brilliant bogey into the mix.
Sprinting to get atop a bunker on the eighth hole, he then massaged and tossed Royal Lytham’s thick, seaweed-like rough so feverishly with his hands – attempting to find a golf ball content to play hide-and-seek – that one might have thought he was Vidal Sassoon giving somebody a $1,000 hair makeover.
Yes, Phil Mickelson was a little bit of everything on Thursday afternoon at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club. Teeing off just before 3 in the afternoon, Mickelson encountered temperatures that chilled, a breeze that decided to strengthen after essentially taking the morning off, and even a little rain. He thought he’d prepared for everything, but there was but one key ingredient he failed to pack in Round 1 of the Open Championship: a suitable, dependable golf swing. And on a day when others took advantage of relatively benign conditions, Mickelson was rendered quite frustrated after signing for 3-over 73.
“You know what,” Mickelson said, offering up a candid assessment of his day, “I putted poorly today, and I drove it horrific, and the chipping was below average.”
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you enjoy your play?
And so it was that as thousands of fans departed for the streets and the clock struck 8 p.m., there stood Mickelson on the practice tee, pounding balls and trying to figure it out. His teacher, Butch Harmon, and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, looked him over and up and down as if they were doing a 53-point car inspection. They stood behind him, stood beside him, held up clubs perpendicular to the ground to see what his shoulders were doing as Mickelson swung with a golf shaft pointed down his line and an umbrella between his feet. He did everything but go into the bag for the Tin Cup contraption to hang on the brim of that well-known KPMG lid.
All in all, it didn’t appear as if this was a guy who was going to “break his duck,” as they say over here, at the world’s oldest major championship, unless he was about to acquire something quite magical through osmosis. The clock was ticking, and not only on his evening plans.
When it comes to majors, Phil is an 800-pound gorilla (three green jackets) who knocks on the door nearly every year at the Masters, a frequent contender at the U.S. Open (five runners-up), and has had his chances at the PGA Championship (winning at Baltusrol in 2005). But heading across to the Open Championship never has been his cup of tea. This is Mickelson’s 19th start at the Open, and there have been only been two occasions when he made the golf-happy Brits actually rise up off their umbrella seats to take notice.
The first was in 2004, when Mickelson stayed in contention until the end at Troon, bowing to Todd Hamilton. And last year at St. George’s, Mickelson was a heavy factor on Sunday before Darren Clarke pulled away for what would be the Northern Irishman’s signature triumph.
Mickelson actually said his “eureka” moment at the Open came eight years ago when Dave Pelz, who helps with his short game, guided Mickelson to dial the flight of the ball down at the same time he was able to lessen the spin. Mickelson clearly was in dire need of some elixir, as he’d had some dismal trips over here where he didn’t cover the cost of plane fuel. A dogged competitor, Mickelson never has been the type to show up and get too excited about finishing T-66, T-59 and T-60, as he did in one four-year stretch a decade ago.
The game plan coming into Lytham was to get the ball into the fairway at all costs, even if it meant being conservative. Almost sounds like a British tabloid headline in the making: Lefty laying back? The plan was good, but his execution wasn’t. Missed fairways cost him. He made double on the docile par-5 seventh when his tee shot missed the short grass by a couple of yards and found deep rough. One hole later, he escaped with a great bogey after again finding heavy rough and taking an unplayable.
When his tee shot went long at the par-3 ninth, leading to bogey, he turned in 3-over 37. Others were posting numbers in the red.
“This is a very playable course with the soft conditions and the soft greens and so forth,” he said. “And if you keep the ball in the fairway, you can make birdies. And I hit it terribly. I hit it in the rough. And the rough is not very playable . . . you’ve got to keep it into the fairway. End of story.”
Having missed the cut at the Greenbrier two weeks ago, Mickelson tacked on an extra start at the Scottish Open – cutting short his time on a family vacation in Italy. He said it was an attempt to improve his focus, which he admits has not been very good of late. Since tying for third at the Masters, Mickelson has made seven starts around the world and has finished no better than seventh.
So he is trying to get mentally sharper and sustain that edge over first 18 holes, then 72. Since stepping off a plane in the United Kingdom, he says that’s been his main area of concentration. In essence, he is focused on being better focused.
“That’s all I’ve been working on,” Mickelson said before the tournament. ”And it’s been getting better . . . it’s been getting better.”
But Thursday’s round brought further struggle, and his frustration in his game – or lack of one – was evident.
“I’m not sure if this is long-term, or short-term, or what,” he said of his woes.
And then, as pretty much everyone else in the field at Lytham headed off to dinner, Mickelson headed to the range, hoping the remedy was out there somewhere.