How ‘Phil the Thrill’ morphed into the king of Scotland

There was a time when it was understandable to wonder just why Phil Mickelson carried a passport. Oh, that’s right, he needed it for those Ryder Cup visits to Europe every four years.

But beyond that, one had to be curious about those mid-July visits to Scotland and England. You know, for that little get-together called the Open Championship?

Open?

You kidding me? For 11 years — 1991-2003 — it was a virtual closed shop when it came to his chances at winning. First time he ever teed up in this links classic, Mickelson shot 77 at Birkdale as an amateur. He came home in joint 73rd. By the time he saw Birkdale again, in 1998, the left-hander was a polished professional but little had changed with the links business — Mickelson posted a third-round 85.

By 2003, Mickelson was 33, already a 21-time winner on the PGA Tour and massively wealthy, but he had a feel for links golf akin to an elephant’s ability to walk quietly on tip toes through a large crowd.

Which brings us back to our original point: Why did he bother? He hadn’t recorded a top 10 in any of the Open Championships he had played and in 40 rounds he had totaled a gaudy cumulative score of 77 over par.

Good gracious, it was if he were a candidate for the net division of the B flite every time he touched links.

Until there came the awakening . . . the year when he turned 34, got a second wind, and discovered that major championships were going to define him.

Just one year earlier, Mickelson had made folks shake their heads when he said his aggressive style of play was going to continue, even if it cost him chances to win the majors.

“I’m not going to change,” Mickelson vowed.

But in 2004, he asked for a mulligan. He won the Masters and savoured the sweetness that comes with a green jacket. Mickelson conceded he had been wrong about the majors and when he nearly won the US Open two months later, the ride was truly on.

But if you weren’t convinced by then, likely you were when the Open Championship set up shop at Royal Troon in 2004.

Mickelson reached and nearly seized the Claret Jug.

“It happened right here,” he said Tuesday night, spreading his arms out at the expanse of Royal Troon. “That was the first year that I played really well in the Open.” There was a smile on his face, but not just because he was returning to Troon, where 12 years ago he finished third, a stroke out of a play-off that saw Todd Hamilton beat Ernie Els.

Buoyantly, Mickelson arrived here knowing he took the lessons of ’04 and grew into an effective player on links. In 11 Opens (2004-2015) he had finished to 10 three times, recorded scores in the 60s on 12 occasions, and played to 2 over for 40 rounds.

Oh, and who can ever forget the magic of 2013 — back-to-back wins at the Scottish Open followed by an Open Championship at Muirfield.

Once lost on links, Mickelson had morphed into the king of Scotland, not just a champion, but an immensely popular one, too.

“When I won the Scottish and British there was a warmth that I felt being here, and it’s been very special,” Mickelson said. “I really cherish this place.”

Clearly, that shows, because the inimitable Mickelson was terrific at Troon again yesterday. Battling cold, wind, and rain, he shot 2-under 69 and pushed to 10-under 132 for a one-stroke lead over Henrik Stenson.

Crazy, this transformation. Mickelson in his first 60 rounds of Open Championship play had never had the lead. Now he not only won in 2013, but he has been the leader after 18 and 36 holes here.

All of this, no less, at the age of 46, when players usually have lost interest and talent.

But not Mickelson. He remains the most entertaining figure on the PGA Tour, still a thrill-a-round sort of player, still passionate about this highest level of competition.

Whereas Tiger Woods at 40 has faded from the stage and doesn’t appear headed back, Mickelson at 46 bounces into these majors like he was a 22-year-old rookie all over again.

One day earlier, Mickelson had been denied a chance for a major-championship record 62 — by the “Golf Gods,” he joked. So, with the 36-hole lead, would said Golf Gods reward him and make him the seventh consecutive winner of the Claret Jug at Royal Troon?

Lefty smiled. “I would expect them to be consistent.”

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