When Phil Mickelson worked out links golf and won the British Open

We recall when Phil Mickelson defied the critics, conquered the linksland and was crowned the Champion Golfer of 2013.

Phil Mickelson was always a dynamic and dazzling fit for the American Majors, an almost inevitable multiple winner of them in fact.

The British Open, on the other hand? Well, for so long, it was a code he simply couldn’t crack.

Time and again Mickelson would prove himself a magician on and around the swift putting surfaces of Augusta National, winning three Green Jackets.

In stark contrast, Britain’s seaside greens left him pulling fresh air, rather than rabbits, from his hat.

And then, in the summer of 2013, he stunned traditionalists and won the Scottish Open – was this to be the year he finally claimed a Claret Jug?

The wrong rehearsal

Ever since 2003 the Californian had been a regular starter at the Scottish Open, the traditional warm-up for the British Open.

In the early years, however, the host venue was the luxurious Loch Lomond GC which undoubtedly boasted an excellent course and had proved an extremely popular venue for the European Tour.

But it was also a very American examination, one which suited Mickelson and yet provided more or less no schooling for the more important challenge which lay ahead.

Aware of the problem, organisers moved the tournament north in 2011 to Castle Stuart near Inverness and the change had an immediate and profound effect on Mickelson’s returns.

In 17 previous British Open appearances he had landed only three top 20s and only one of those had been a top 10.

Phil Mickelson: Has not always had the best of times at The Open
Phil Mickelson: Has not always had the best of times at The Open

To place that in context, he’d landed, at that time, 14 top 10s in the Masters including three wins.

He’d also logged ten top 10s at the US Open, a tally that boasted no less than five runner-up finishes.

Oh, and there had also been eight top 10s at the PGA Championship, one of them a victory.

The gulf between his undoubted class on the pristine parkland of America and the fast-running linksland of Britain was remarkable.

True, he had finished third at the 2004 British Open, ending the week just one shot outside the play-off, but it was an absolute exception to the rule because in 10 of his 17 starts he’d failed to even make the top 40.

The missing links

That first visit to Castle Stuart did not start well for Mickelson.

He limped home in 73 blows on Thursday, sat outside the top 100, and all set to miss the cut.

But he persevered, crafted a second round 67, and made the weekend on the number.

Next morning he may have regretted it because the weather was appalling, the tournament eventually reduced to 54-holes, and he trailed home in T58th.

Significant foundations had been laid, however.

“Sometimes I’m still debating whether I want to go through the air or hit shots along the ground,” he admitted, adding: “It’s just great that I'm here, though, and challenging myself on those shots.”

A week later he traveled to Royal St George’s, got himself into contention, negotiated more foul weather on the Saturday, and ended the week second behind Darren Clarke.

“Oh man, that was some of the most fun I’ve had competitively,” he gushed afterwards. “It was an exciting day.”

Had the worm turned? Maybe, maybe not.

The breakthrough

A year later he threatened to win at Castle Stuart, but missed the cut at Royal Lytham & St Annes.

And even when he won the 2013 Scottish Open, twice carding a 66 at Castle Stuart before downing Branden Grace in extra holes, there were doubters.

At one stage that week he was faced with a difficult recovery from a missed green and reached for his lob wedge.

The Sky Sports commentary team tut-tutted his choice of shot, acknowledging his expertise with the club in America, but doubtful that it was the correct decision in these particular conditions.

The implications were clear to everyone: this is what Mickelson does, he refuses to change his game for the links test, he’s about to come a cropper.

In actual fact he lobbed the ball high into the sky, it landed like a feather, settled by the hole, and his par was secured.

The commentators purred and yet couldn’t resist adding that it might work occasionally but it wouldn’t in the long run.

The man himself was thrilled, but wary in the aftermath.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered links golf,” he said. “That’s probably over-stating it. I certainly had a great week and it’s a big step for me.

“To finally win on a links golf course means a lot to me and builds my confidence heading into the British Open.”

Validation

Three days later Mickelson loped from the clubhouse at Muirfield to the media centre in typical style, all goofy smiles and unlikely chatter with the security guards in hi-vis jackets.

In front of the press he did his best to remain understated, but also revealed: “From an opportunity-to-win standpoint I would say that Muirfield or Troon would offer my two best chances.

“Last week was a very positive sign for me because I putted difficult grasses and played very well in windy conditions on Sunday. Both have given me problems here. Hopefully I’ve solved them.”

He opened the week with a 69 to lie tied ninth, only the second time he’d found himself in the top 10 after 18 holes at a British Open.

The rounds of 74-72 which followed, however, kept him trapped in the same position on the leaderboard and now five, rather than three, shots off the lead.

“I’ll have to play a good round tomorrow,” he said. “But I think it’s there.”

Scotland was enjoying a hot summer and Muirfield was baked dry, the players hitting huge drives yet also struggling to control the ball on the scorched earth.

It was a difficult test and Mickelson woke on Sunday ready for it.

“I didn’t worry too much about what other guys were doing,” he said later.

“I knew, at the end of the day, the winning score was gonna be around even par. The course was just too testing.”

He birdied the par-5 ninth hole to reach level-par for the week.

He was on target and, while he gave a shot back at the tenth, as he had predicted the leaders were coming back to him.

At the 13th he made a move with “a beautiful penetrating 5-iron into a severe wind” that set up a birdie and another followed at the 14th.

The par-5 17th was not only crucial, it was also Mickelson at his best.

Sometimes he over-thinks, other times his strategy is superb.

On this day he carried no driver, instead having two 3-woods in his bag, and he used both to find the green in two.

“My two best shots of the week to get it on that green,” he said.

“Walking up there, realizing the championship was in my control, I was getting a little emotional.

“I had to slow down and regain composure because I not only still needed a two-putt birdie, I also needed to make a tough par on 18.

“Fortunately I made birdie on both.”

There was no luck about it.

Phil Mickelson had defied the critics, conquered the linksland, and was crowned the Champion Golfer of 2013.

By Matt Cooper, follow him on Twitter

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