Phil Mickelson has always held a tremendous flair for the dramatic. With the Open Championship at Muirfield beginning Thursday, Lefty has another chance this summer to make people take notice.
After Mickelson won the Scottish Open last week for his first victory in Europe since 1993, it seems pretty clear that there are only two potential outcomes this week: Phil will win the whole damn thing or miss the cut…again.
Mickelson has a horrible record at the Open Championship. He has just two top-five finishes in his career—third place in 2004 and tied for second in 2011—with four missed cuts in his 18 tournament entries and an average finish of 36th place in those in which he did make the cut, finishing 40th or worse six times (not counting amateur result). Even when Phil makes the cut, he is rarely at the top of the Open leaderboard.
Why would this year be any different? Well, maybe Phil is different.
When asked about his relationship with links golf, Mickelson explained how his opinion has changed over the years. "It's a hate-love," Mickelson told Shane Bacon of Yahoo! Sports. "I used to hate it, now I love it."
Take what Mickelson says with a grain from one of Scotland's most famous pot-bunkers.
Phil always says the right things at press conferences, so his newfound love of links golf may be nothing more than pre-championship respect to the rich, illustrious history at Muirfield.
Or maybe he really thinks he can win it. He said a lot of great things heading into the U.S. Open at Merion and we know how that turned out.
Mickelson should have won the U.S. Open this summer. Justin Rose deserves credit for taking home the championship, but Mickelson had the trophy in his bag, playing excellent tee-to-green golf but failing to capitalize on the greens, lipping out or burning the edge of at least 18 holes over the final three days to finish second yet again.
Merion certainly felt like Mickelson's best shot at winning one of the two majors he has yet to win—his four majors have come at the Masters and PGA Championship—but with that loss painfully behind him, perhaps his Open Championship luck can turn around this week.
Or he'll miss the cut, again. Seriously, nobody—including Mickelson—has any idea.
He was asked during his Tuesday media availability how he plans to navigate the deep, wispy rough of Muirfield that resembles more a field of wheat than a second cut. His reply was, simply, to "stay out of it."
Lefty's plan is solid, if he can manage to accomplish it. Per Golfchannel.com:
It is fun to come in with a win, but now it's time to focus on Muirfield and try to learn the nuances. What I'm looking for is how to make easy pars, how to get the ball in the fairway easily, how to get it up and around the greens without a lot of stress, without having to hit perfect shots. Because imperfect shots will be magnified by the wind.
Mickelson's plan is essentially the same one he had at Merion, and since he absolutely should have won that tournament, there's no reason to deviate on a course with as many severe natural defenses as Muirfield. Still, it's all much easier said than done.
He is 164th out of 190 ranked players on Tour in driving accuracy, which may be one of several reasons he won't be carrying a driver for the second major in a row.
Rather, it's going to be Lefty's short game that gets him in contention this week so, much like at Merion, he's going with an extra wedge. Per CBSSports.com:
I'm not going to carry [a driver] this week, no. I feel like the 64-degree wedge on this firm ground can save me some shots, and I just don't see how a driver is going to help me in any areas.
I'm able to hit that 3-wood on this firm ground every bit as close enough in distance on the holes and distance on any tee shot is not even in my mind. It's avoiding bunkers, avoiding rough, getting the ball in the fairway. And I can do it a lot easier with clubs other than driver.
The real question for Mickelson after the painful loss at the U.S. Open is not his driver or his wedge game, but his putter. Can he make enough putts to win at Muirfield? Per CBSSports.com:
I believe I have kind of found the secret to my own putting, and what I need to do to putt well. And every single day now for the last year it's been the same thing, and I've been putting really well.
Look, we've established that Phil always says the right thing and is an amazing quote for people like me who lap this kind of stuff up. He's been that way for years.
Having said that, he told me to my face after the third round of the U.S. Open that he felt great with his putter and went out on Sunday at Merion and used the blade 36 times in 18 holes.
His numbers are good this year, as he ranks 19th on tour in putting, but Mickelson needs to hit a putt when it counts. Even his victory at the Scottish Open came after three-putting the 18th hole to settle for the extra hole tiebreaker.
For Mickelson to contend and even win at Muirfield, it's no secret that he needs to figure out a way to get those close putts to drop in the hole.
No one, especially Mickelson, thought he could ever hoist a Claret Jug before the U.S. Open trophy. It's very unlikely, given his history at the event, that Mickelson wins the Open this year, even coming off a victory and entering the championship with a world of confidence.
So you never know. Phil does have that flair for the dramatic.