The Sandwich epiphany: Bones Mackay on Phil Mickelson’s linksland learning curve

He lifted the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013, but the seeds of Mickelson’s Open success were sown two years earlier.

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Former caddie and on-course TV reporter Jim 'Bones' Mackay is in no doubt about the brilliance of the two shots his former boss Phil Mickelson hit into the 17th hole of the final round in the 2013 Open at Muirfield.

"I tell people all the time," he told Planet Sport last week. "If you take the 10 best shots I ever witnessed Phil hit, he hit two of them right there, back-to-back, on the same hole, in a major championship, one he'd never won, right when he needed it.

"I worked with him for over 25 years so what are the odds of that?! It was phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal."

It was also the conclusion of a slow burn transformation because Mickelson may well be one of the most creative and audacious golfers of all time, but the Open linksland test was one that had frequently befuddled him.

Ahead of the 2011 edition at Royal St George's, he'd landed just one top 10 at the Open in 17 attempts.

Something needed to change and, as Mackay revealed, Mickelson knew that as well as anyone.

Missing links

Part one of Mickelson's seaside revolution was prompted by a third party.

He was a regular visitor to the Scottish Open and it had always been held at the parkland Loch Lomond, but in 2011 it started a journey around the nation's coastline beginning at Castle Stuart.

That first year on the links he crafted a second round 67 to make the cut on the number and afterwards talked excitedly about hitting balls along the ground. The implication was clear: the venue change had helped him turn a corner in his understanding of the examination.

Part two was entirely self-motivated, however.

"At that point, halfway through his career, Phil was very unhappy with his results in the Open Championship and he wanted to do something about it," Mackay said.

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"Butch Harmon was a huge part in Phil learning to play links golf successfully because under his tutelage Phil became a very good iron player in terms of flighting the ball in the wind. That was huge."

Bullet-proof

"It was fascinating to watch that whole process take place over the course of a few years and then start to pay dividends," Mackay said.

"There's no doubt that the first signs came at Royal St George's in 2011 where he had an incredibly good chance to win that event on that back nine on Sunday.

"He made a birdie-3 at the fourth that day and the amount of momentum that provided him was huge. It made him feel bullet-proof. He missed very makeable birdie putts on 8 and 9, and still shot 30 on the front."

Ultimately, he finished tied second alongside Dustin Johnson, three shots behind Darren Clarke, but the words that poured forth afterwards left no-one in any doubt that the worm had turned.

"That was some of most fun I've ever had competitively," Mickelson said, going on to repeat the word 'fun' six times in three answers.

Momentum maintained

Fast forward two years and Mickelson was five back of the lead with 18 holes to play at a baked and blustery Muirfield.

"He was warming up on the range in a wind that was very unsuitable for a left-handed player," explained Mackay. "It was blowing hard right-to-left, a wind you didn't want him to warm up in and get into bad habits. But he didn't need to warm up. He knew he was hitting it well."

At Royal St George's the front nine energy fizzled out, but not this time.

"Without question, that was the best round of golf I ever saw him play," said Mackay.

"I saw a lot of golf working with him. A lot of really, really, really good golf. But that day was the best.

"He played the perfect round of golf. Even the lone bogey, he hit a great iron shot which took a poor bounce."

Resilience

Great championship golf requires more than par breakers, however; it also demands durability and gritty par saves.

"The approach shot to the 16th was an absolute gut punch," Mackay explained.

"He hit a phenomenal 6-iron that got a huge response from the spectators, but the green had become so fast that the ball literally blew back off the front of the green, short left, leaving him 40-foot away.

"Incredibly unlucky, but he also realised as we walked toward the green that everyone else was going to have to deal with this hole as well. So he was going to grin and bear it. His 8-footer for par was just sensational."

Destiny

Mickelson would later say of the par-5 17th hole that followed: "If you want to win tournaments, you have to take risks. People that aren't willing to take those risks are missing out. Missing out on the excitement of the game and missing out on controlling their own destiny."

Mackay, a brand ambassador for AON's Risk and Reward Challenge, had a quarter-century insight into one of golf's greatest-ever risk-reward jugglers and the 71st hole of the 2013 Open might just be his finest example of treading that fine line.

"There was huge, huge risk," said Mackay.

"What a little lost is that the hole doglegs from right-to-left and the only way Phil could get there in two was to hit a draw off the tee, into the wind, taking it right up by the bunkers on the left side that ended Paul Azinger's chance in 1987.

"Phil's a very knowledgeable guy when it comes to history, so he knew that risk.

"For the approach I think he had 304-yards total, again back into the wind and needing to repeat the same shot. Repeat risk.

"But that's the thing about Phil. He said his entire career, if I get myself in those positions late on Sunday, I'm not going to be the guy to sit around and see if it falls in my lap, I want to go and win the tournament, to stick a hand out and put it on that trophy.

"That's exactly what he did that day."

The ball found the heart of the green, he completed a two-putt birdie, and would set a clubhouse target no-one would match.

"To achieve that 66 on an iconic course, in difficult conditions, in probably the greatest event. Well, for me it was like a movie. I'll never forget it for as long as I live."

Longevity

Ten years on from turning his links record around at Royal St George's Mickelson returns to the course not only as a past Open champion, but also the reigning PGA Championship winner.

His triumph at Kiawah Island in May was not a surprise to Mackay and he recognises that 51-year-old Mickelson was playing with the knowledge that something very special was within his grasp: the oldest major champion on the longest-ever major championship course.

"I know Phil," he said. "As confident as he is that he can win majors into his 50s, the actual reality of it was massive.

"There was a lot for him to digest above and beyond just winning the golf tournament. Those opportunities are rare, very rare.

"And it wasn't Palm Springs. That course, one bad shot and it could go very wrong very quickly. There was a lot for him to handle emotionally and mentally."

Can he win multiple majors in his 50s?!

"He knows it," said Mackay. "That's the guy. Not many guys can play the best golf of their life on the greatest stage time and again. Phil can."

READ MORE: Open Sandwich: What the 2011 field said about the Royal St. George's test