In the immediate aftermath of victory in the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, Phil Mickelson could remove neither the smile from his face or his hand from golf’s most iconic trophy, the Old Claret Jug. He may already have won four major championships, but this one clearly meant the most to the then 43-year old Californian. This one was for him.
Which is understandable. Until he claimed the Scottish Open title seven days before — he traversed the last six holes of the famous East Lothian links in a remarkable four under par, “the best I have ever played” — there were always a couple of asterisks when it came to analysing Mickelson’s otherwise stellar career.
He hadn’t won anything of real significance outside the cosseted and too-often one-dimensional confines of the PGA Tour. And his record of futility in the game’s oldest championship was, for one so naturally gifted and creative, both a mystery and a near embarrassment.
No more though. Any nagging doubts about the completeness of his CV were well and truly dispelled four years ago. The game’s best-ever left-hander might not have a bucket, spade or “Kiss Me Quick” hat in his golf bag, but he now feels like he belongs by the seaside. Links golf no longer has his number.
“I don’t know if there has been any substantive change in my life, but I certainly feel different when I come over here to play,” he said in the run-up to this week’s Open at Royal Birkdale, where he made his championship debut as an amateur in 1991.
“I’ve always been excited to do that, but I now come with a new confidence and attitude because I’ve had success here. I have a great appreciation of what Britain has meant to golf and what the game means to the people over here. I’m not sure how to put into words what a great experience the 2013 Open was. I remember so much of that day so vividly.”
Indeed, his was quite a performance. One over par for the week when he reached the 13th tee in the final round, Mickelson hit a succession of near-perfect shots all the way to the 18th green, his sometimes erratic long game suddenly matching the almost peerless quality and variety of his shots around the green.
“Phil is like Seve was on tour,” says Rory McIlroy. “When he appears on the pitching green, everyone stops to watch. You have to. And that doesn’t happen with many people, only a handful. There is so much to admire even if you aren’t trying to pick up on anything. He just looks so comfortable with a wedge in his hands.”
Four years on from fulfilling one of the two biggest omissions on his stellar resumé — the US Open, in which he has six times been runner-up, remains unconquered — Mickelson’s enthusiasm for the game that has been his professional life is undiminished.
Mentally he is still the wee boy who, when playing with his father, refused to tee-off on the 18th hole: “Because then we’ll be finished.”
“I love golf,” he says simply. “It’s never been work for me and it still isn’t. I love the challenge the game provides. I love to compete. I just love playing golf. That feeling is still in me.”
One thing Mickelson is quick to dismiss is the notion that a man far removed from the first flush of youth cannot at least contend in an Open.
And evidence suggests he is correct. In the last 24 majors, Henrik Stenson (40), Mickelson (43), Darren Clarke (43), Ernie Els (42), and Zach Johnson (39) got to grips with the Claret Jug.
“I look at what Tom Watson did in 2009, when he almost won the Open aged 59,” says Mickelson. “Links golf provides the best opportunity for a player in his 50s to win a major. Length is less important. You can’t overpower links golf. You need all the shots. You need to be sharp around the greens. And you need to hole some difficult short putts in crosswinds.”
he motivation any sportsman needs to compete with the very best also lingers within Mickelson. He is not one for giving up without a fight, as his longstanding and ultimately successful battle with the vagaries of links golf shows only too clearly. Perhaps the only lingering question is why it took him so long to work it all out.
“I grew up playing a game where the idea is to hit the ball as high as possible with as little spin as possible,” he explains. “To do that you have to swing hard. And that’s how I hit every shot. I eventually figured it out in 2004 at Royal Troon. And now I look at myself differently because I have been able to play links golf at the highest level.”
In the 12 months he spent as the “champion golfer of the year,” Mickelson enjoyed travelling the world with the spoils of his Open victory. The Claret Jug was a regular companion, Mickelson deriving much pleasure from the enjoyment so many friends and fans derived from its close proximity.
“I’ve loved having the Jug with me,” he confirms. “The people who know and love the game got a big kick out of it. They really appreciated what it meant to hold such a famous trophy. And drink out of it. I only let them drink the good stuff of course. Nothing in there was sub-par. But the best was a 1990 bottle of Romanee Conti wine. It wasn’t on my dime though. It costs about $40,000 (€34,727).”
Which is only about one twenty-fourth of the first-place prize money on offer at Muirfield in 2013. Come on Phil, you could have afforded it.