GULLANE, Scotland — Phil Mickelson arrives at Muirfield for the 142nd Open Championship possibly with the most confidence he’s ever had prior to the year’s third major.
And it showed on Tuesday in his pre championship press conference.
Winning last week’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart — Mickelson’s first links win in 22 tries — has clearly buoyed the left-hander.
“(I) enjoyed finally breaking through and winning the Scottish Open,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been coming so many years and it feels great. I’m looking forward to the British Open. I’ve been playing well for a few months, and I’m hopeful this will be a good week.”
With as much success as he has had around the world, Mickelson had been beguiled by links golf recording only two top 10s in the Open Championship — a third in 2004 at Troon and second just two years a ago at Royal St. George’s.
Just two years ago at Royal St. George’s that Mickelson started the week suggesting he wasn’t going to look back at his past record and dwell on his lack of success.
Coming into Muirfield, a place he finished 66th in 2002, Mickelson is only talking about how excited he is to be playing links golf.
Mickelson’s relationship with links golf started in 1991 at Birkdale as a 21-year-old college student making the field as the U.S. Amateur champion.
Making the cut would have seemed to be a predictor for future success, but 18 more Open Championships, two Scottish Opens at Castle Stuart, an unsuccessful qualifier in 1992 at North Berwick and Mickelson has left the shores of Britain stymied.
The turnaround in the Hall-of-Famer’s mind came in 2004 working with short-game guru Dave Pelz the duo came over early to work on finding a go-to shot.
“I call it kind of a chip, a kind of a chip 4-wood, a chip hybrid, a chip 4-iron, where I’m just swinging it almost half pace trying to take spin and speed off of it and just get it on the ground,” Mickelson explained when discussing the change in his game on links courses. “And it’s this low, little scooting shot that feels very easy to get it in play. And the miss is not anywhere near as drastic, because it’s not ever up in the wind.”
Mickelson’s also points to more recent developments beyond the “chip” that he believes is making a difference.
His putter and the results on the greens are what he is more accustomed to. Unwilling to get into the specifics of what he has done or changes he has made with the putter, Mickelson’s confidence with the flat stick has been part and parcel of his success in 2013, recording wins in Phoenix and Scotland. The left-hander has also recorded two runner-up finishes (including the U.S. Open) and two third-place finishes in 15 events.
The statistics bare this out with a ranking of first in putting average, 11th in strokes gained putting and 19th in total putting this season on the PGA Tour.
“I believe I have kind of found the secret to my own putting, and what I need to do to putt well.,” Mickelson said. “And every single day now for the last year it’s been the same thing, and I’ve been putting really well. And I think that last week was a very positive sign for me, because I putted difficult fescue grasses, and in wind conditions on Sunday, very well. And hopefully that one common thread that’s given me problems here, I hopefully have solved.”
Another key for Mickelson will be to forgo the driver for the second consecutive major.
Mickelson used a 3-wood primarily as his driving club at Merion in last month’s U.S. Open and felt that club performed as expected, even though he picked up his sixth career runner-up finish at America’s national championship. He believes the hard and fast conditions of Muirfield lend themselves to the same strategy of Merion.
In what may be counterintuitive for many, Mickelson will keep a 64-degree wedge in the bag instead of the driver, which is a large part of his plan.
“Eventually you’re going to have to play some over the bunkers,” Mickelson said of the need for the 64-degree wedge. “The tight firm ground here allows me to get that leading edge underneath it because it has less bounce.”
Confidence, better putting stats, 3-wood off the tee, 64-degree wedge on a links course, that is the formula that Mickelson believes will bring about a major win in the most unlikely of the four majors for a player known for living on the edge of creativity and wildness.
Mickelson will have to also accomplish something that is very difficult to do — win in consecutive weeks. He has done it before in 1996 at the Nortel Open and Phoenix Open, in 2005 it was the FBR Open and AT&T Pebble Beach, in 2006 it was the BellSouth Classic and the Masters and in 2009 it was the Tour Championship and the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Now Mickelson is faced with the possibility again.
“No, it’s difficult to win the week before a Major and then follow it up winning the Major,” Mickelson conceded. “But, then again, the last person to do it, you’re looking at him.”