With disaster reaching up to grab Phil Mickelson in the middle of his round—double bogey, bogey and double bogey at the 7th, 8th and 9th holes—how would his place in history be affected if his 2012 British Open does not go as well as his 2011 British Open? He certainly struggled in places during the first round with shots just off the fairway that were nestled down into so much rough that at one point he asked a rules official if there was any relief if he couldn’t see the ball. The answer was no.
In terms of assessing his first round play, Mickelson said,” I putted poorly today and I drove it horrific and the chipping was below average.”
He went to the range to work out the issues with Butch Harmon, which he said was rare to do after a round. In the worst spot of rough, he was not able to see the ball even when standing over it. He said that they looked for it for three minutes and couldn’t find it.
“That's the way the rough is here, and you just can't go in it,” he added. “I missed the fairway by four yards and I had a very difficult situation and ended up making 7. You just can't afford to do that.”
If he can’t turn it around on Friday and misses the cut, is his golf legacy endangered?
Assuming Mickelson’s health holds, he probably has another 12 to 20 major championships, including three to five more British Opens, where he is still competitive with the younger players. But at age 42, his window is closing.
However, Mickelson is already a Hall of Famer. He was inducted last spring.
His total of 40 PGA Tour victories puts him ahead of Tom Watson in that category. He’s ninth in PGA titles overall, just behind Walter Hagen, who has 45. He could easily pass Hagen’s number before he turns 50 or finds something that interests him more than playing golf.
Mickelson already has four majors—five if you count The Players. So does he need a British Open victory to be considered a great player by golf historians? No. But would he like to add those two major trophies he has not yet won, the US Open and British Open? Yes. He just doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I don't want to jump ahead,” he said before the British Open started. “I mean it would certainly‑‑ obviously it would mean a lot for any player's career. I don't like to get that far ahead right now.”
In fairness, while he has missed a couple of realistic chances at the US Open, he has not given himself very many chances at the British Open until recently. He said he didn’t embrace the conditions or play the shots he needed to be successful. He remembers exactly when all that changed.
“It was early in '04,” he explained. “I started to spend some time with Dave Pelz and learned to not only hit the ball down but take some spin off of it when I hit the ball down.”
That allowed him to hit shots that were more appropriate for links style golf, which is played on the ground versus target golf, which is played in the air. From there, he said, his enjoyment of links golf evolved.
“It took me a while to be able to understand what it meant to get the ball on the ground because I was able to hit the ball low but I would still hit it with spin and it would stay in the air and kind of hover above the ground rather than getting it on the ground. It didn't really click until six, eight years ago,” he added.
“Now when it gets really bad weather, my misses in crosswinds are not as bad as they used to be, because it's on the ground and out of the wind a lot quicker. And that's made me really enjoy and appreciate playing links golf and playing in the elements.”
Learning the skills of links golf changed his attitude, and that contributed to his second place finish in the 2011 British Open.
“I think what was so fun for me about last year was that I was able to make a move in horrible weather, and that's one of the things that has excited me because historically I've not played well in bad weather,” he explained. “Now I look at it a little bit differently.”
He said he now has confidence playing in bad weather.
“I almost welcome it, in a sense,” he continued. “I certainly have more confidence in competing and playing in weather and the different challenges that links golf presents after having had some success after last year.”
So will Mickelson’s legacy be made or broken by a victory in this year’s British Open? No. But wining it would put him one trophy closer to the holy grail of all professional golfers. Should he win the British Open and the US Open, he will be one of six men in history who have the career grand slam. It’s rarefied air. Elite company. It’s only been done by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and most recently, Tiger Woods.
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.