Mickelson wants to make it easy
Fresh off a Scottish Open victory, Phil Mickelson showed up at Muirfield for the first time in 11 years and didn’t take long to figure out his strategy for the British Open: He wants to keep it as simple as possible and try to make easy pars.
He didn’t take the easy route on the par-5 17th, however.
Mickelson couldn’t resist the temptation of the dunes right of the green. He placed the ball on the upward slope, even with the flag, and attempted his favorite trick shot — hitting a lob wedge that goes backward. With a full swing, the ball went up and over his head, landed on the green and stopped about 6 feet away.
But it was only Monday, a day of practice.
”It is fun to come in with a win, but now it’s time to focus on Muirfield and try to learn the nuances,” Mickelson said. ”What I’m looking for is how to make easy pars, how to get the ball in the fairway easily, how to get it up and around the greens without a lot of stress, without having to hit perfect shots. Because imperfect shots will be magnified by the wind.”
Mickelson has not had much success in the Open. He finished one shot out of a playoff in 2004 at Royal Troon in what he considers his best week in the British Open. Two years ago, he made a Sunday charge that came up three shots short at Royal St. George’s.
He is trying to understand how to play the game on the ground, so typical of links golf, but he said Muirfield is a course that sometimes requires the ball to travel more in the air to cover some of the pot bunkers short of the green.
Mickelson finished toward the bottom of the pack in 2002 at Muirfield. He missed the nasty weather on Saturday that derailed so many other players, but failed to take advantage of the calm conditions and shot 76. He tried to come down on Tuesday of last week for a practice round, but he didn’t make it. That means he will be spending more time playing the course than he does at other majors.
Take Merion, for example.
Mickelson did most of his preparations a week before the US Open, so he had no trouble flying home across the country to San Diego for his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation and returning overnight in time for his Thursday morning tee time. He nearly won the US Open.
At other majors, it’s not unusual for him to play one full practice round at the course and go elsewhere the rest of the week until the opening round. But he knows those courses. Muirfield requires getting reacquainted.
”This week I’ll spend more time on the golf course,” he said. ”Being able to be here and have a few quiet days is good.”
His wife and three children were with him at Castle Stuart in the north of Scotland last week. They dropped him off Monday and headed to Barcelona for a few days until the championship begins.
Ernie Els has won major championships 18 years apart, and one big difference is the reaction of the media and the time commitments. It can be exhausting, and last year’s win at Royal Lytham & St. Annes was even tougher because he wanted to honor his sponsor’s commitment by playing in the Canadian Open the next week. He never really recovered the rest of the year.
It wasn’t like that in 1994 when he won the US Open at Oakmont.
”I think I did Matt Lauer and ”Today” — Katie Couric was there still back in the day — did a little thing with them,” he said. ”Went back to the 18th green at Oakmont, and that was the only thing. I didn’t even own a house in those days. I got back on my plane, myself and (wife) Leizl, and flew back to London. We rented a cottage from Renton Laidlaw, and we just hid from the world there.
”The whole thing has changed a lot, especially since `94,” he said. ”There are so many story lines that people want. So it can get very, very busy.”
Peter Hanson has been struggling with a sore back, and he’s still not sure if he’ll tee it up Thursday. The Swede said it was 50-50 he would play.
”I thought the disk problem in my back was getting better, but then it starts to feel worse,” Hanson said.
Hanson had planned to play The Greenbrier Classic and the following week, either in America or Scotland. But there was a rain delay at The Greenbrier, and he couldn’t move when play resumed so he had to withdraw. He came straight to Scotland to work with his physical therapist trying to get ready.
The key was going to be Tuesday.
”If I can play nine holes pain-free, then that will be the key to my playing or not,” he said.
The first alternate if he were to withdraw is Joost Luiten of The Netherlands.
Thomas Levet was part of the four-man playoff at Muirfield in 2002, and he went one extra hole of sudden death before making bogey on the 18th hole and losing to Els. He didn’t qualify to play this year. Neither did the other two from that playoff, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.
Levet is doing TV work, and he said it’s been tough.
”I am fine here in the practice range, but when I walk back among the crowd it is difficult because everyone keeps reminding me of what happened in 2002,” Levet said. ”I think I’ve signed 20,000 autographs already this week, so it is very difficult.”
France at least is represented by Gregory Bourdy, so maybe he can get atonement from his country.
”The question to Gregory is, `Who will be only the second French player to win the British Open,”’ Levet said. ”And the answer this week will be, `Gregory Bourdy.”’
Arnaud Massy in 1907 at Royal Liverpool is the only Frenchman to win a claret jug. Jean Van de Velde nearly joined him in 1999 at Carnoustie when he took a three-shot lead into the final hole. Van de Velde famously made triple bogey and lost in a playoff.
• Ben Curtis is back with a familiar face on the bag. He has reunited with Andy Sutton, the English caddie he hired in 2003 to work for him at Royal St. George’s when Curtis shocked the golfing world by winning the British Open.
• Howell III would have been the second alternate, but he withdrew from the Open on Sunday when Jordan Spieth qualified by winning the John Deere Classic. If Zach Johnson had won the Deere, then Joost Luiten would have gotten in, and Howell would have moved up to the first alternate position.
• Harris English was among those who flew over on the charter from the John Deere Classic. He looked tired but still managed to get in nine holes of practice to stay awake. He at least received some great instruction. English was joined for nine holes by Els, the defending champion and 2002 winner at Muirfield.