Lefty leads new invasion of Americans

There was a time when it was fair to question whether American golfers even owned passports. So spoiled, so comfortable, so insular in their PGA Tour world were they that their travels outside the home fence were few and far between.

Oh, how they were so different than their European colleagues, a band of merry mates who crisscrossed borders, understood monetary systems and moved seamlessly between cultures.

For all the heartfelt cheers assigned to Arnold Palmer’s decision in 1960 to take on the challenge of the Open Championship — if you believe folklore, this gave birth to talk of a Grand Slam — some 25 years later some of that goodwill had begun to erode. Two-time US Open champion Curtis Strange bypassed the Open five times between 1982 and 1995 and famously tried to explain how the exorbitant travel costs were a legitimate roadblock to Americans playing in the Open, and Scott Hoch did his countrymen no favours by offering disparaging comments about links, even the Old Course.

While Phil Mickelson, pictured, journeyed to France as a second-year pro and won something called the Perrier Open, for the most part he was viewed as a stay-at-home star and that image was reinforced by three realities: 1) over the next 14 years, Lefty never won outside America; 2) he played poorly in Ryder Cup defeats in Spain (1997), England (2002), and Ireland (2006); and 3) in his first 11 tries at the Open Championship he had just one finish inside the top 20.

Ah, but that was then and this is now, the era of Mickelson as the global gladiator. He won the HSBC Champions in China in 2007 and loved it so much he did so again in 2009. Clearly in possession of not only a passport but a hankering to use it, Mickelson showed up at the 2013 Scottish Open and posted his first win on links. His second win came a week later, the Open Championship at Muirfield, the best links of them all, no less.

Still riding a high from that embrace of the Claret Jug, Mickelson sings the praises of his Scottish Open preparation: “I thought winning the Scottish was very instrumental in propelling me to the Open,” Mickelson said.

That Mickelson showed up at Royal Aberdeen for this year’s Scottish Open was hardly a shock. Not just because he was the defending champ, butbecause he’s also joined a healthy list of marquee names who consider the European PGA Tour’s decision to stage the Scottish Open on links the week before the Open Championship a proverbial home run.

“I think it’s an advantage to play the Scottish Open on links,” Mickelson said, running off a list of reasons why. Getting acclimated to the time difference, to the way the ball bounces, to putting in crosswinds, to finding the rhythm of lag putts. The thing is, he is hardly alone and if you think that players don’t pay attention to the subtle little trends, think again. Many of them are well-versed in the knowledge that the last three winners of the Open Championship — Mickelson in 2013, Ernie Els in 2012, Darren Clarke in 2011 — each played in the Scottish Open the week before.

Justin Rose, who won last week’s Scottish Open, said: “I played to get more familiar with links. I’ve come into [the Open Championship] playing links, but doing it by myself, trying to find different venues to get the feel of it. But I really felt like it was important to get the scorecard in my hand last week and do it under somewhat meaningful conditions.”

It’s a sentiment that has caught on since the Scottish Open in 2011 moved to a links. Not only with European stalwarts such as Rose, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, and Ian Poulter — all of whom played last week — but with highly-ranked Americans such as Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker.

The word is out, that the Scottish Open warm-up on links the week before the Open is a huge advantage, and expect the field to swell even more next year when it is held at Gullane No 1, a short ride from the Old Course, site of the next Open Championship. The American contingent, which presently makes up 36% of this year’s field at Royal Liverpool (57 of 156), will likely embrace the Gullane chance in passionate accord, proving further that times have changed.

They don’t mind carrying the passport these days. At least on occasion.


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