HOYLAKE, England—The one admission was unavoidable.
“It hasn’t been a very good year,” affirmed Phil Mickelson.
Not at all. Not when he missed the cut in the Masters and finished 28th in the U.S. Open. Not when he couldn’t crack the top 10 in any tournament on the PGA Tour since August.
Here Mickelson sat, with all his endorsement labels—Barclays on the vest sweater, Callaway on the shirt sleeve, KPMG on the hat— talking about last year.
Here, he spoke of how he watches replays of that Open Championship victory in 2013 at Muirfield. Talked of how he enjoyed drinking a bottle of 1990 Romanee Conti—priced in the $20,000 range—from the Claret Jug, the winner’s trophy.
It all came together for Mickelson in 2013 at Muirfield. It hasn’t since, and it probably never will again.
He can’t even win a regular tournament. How is he going to win another Open Championship, another British Open?
The best parts of his game—the chipping, the short irons, the putting—have become the worst parts of his game.
He admits that.
“It has not been a good putting year,” he said Monday.
He also admitted, “I’ve struggled with my short irons, which has always been my strength. I haven’t been that sharp.”
His Open defense begins Thursday at Royal Liverpool, also known as Hoylake for the town in which it is located. Across the Mersey River from Beatles history. Across a great divide from Mickelson’s game of 12 months ago.
“The tough part about it is that when you try to have a round like that,” he said of that magnificent finish, the 66 the last day at Muirfield, “that’s when it all goes south.”
Mickelson is 44 now, not too old but old enough. Julius Boros won a PGA Championship at 48. Jack Nicklaus won a Masters at 46. And Mickelson, almost shockingly, won an Open Championship at 43.
The nerves go. The concentration goes. A golfer, a great golfer, nearing age 50 occasionally is in contention and astounds us for a round or two. But with the remarkable exception of 59-year-old Tom Watson at the 2009 Open, not a tournament.
We witness the rise and the fall. In tennis, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, in their early 30s, have begun to decline. In golf, Mickelson, in his mid-40s, is also starting to slow down, although he is in full denial.
“I feel better than I have in years,” he said. “And I’ve had to work a little bit harder...I know (my age) would be an assumption for the struggles with my scoring clubs, but I believe the next five years are going to be some of the best in my career.”
Of course. Have you ever heard an athlete say, “You’re right; I should retire”? Their stubbornness, their refusal to accede is as much a part of their success as their physical skills.
What does it matter anyway in golf, other than the issue of pride? It isn’t as if Mickelson is going to get thumped by some defensive tackle or be slow to duck out of the way of a purpose pitch. The golf ball doesn’t threaten. You hit the ball; it doesn’t hit you.
What hasn’t hit Phil, figuratively, is that from now on, nothing in golf will be more rewarding than the 2013 Open, when he disproved his own long-held theories he couldn’t play links golf.
When he held up the Claret Jug—“It’s the oldest trophy in sports, I believe,” he said, unaware the one for the America’s Cup is older—Mickelson reached an unexpected plateau.
“It’s a different feeling for me, coming over here now having won this tournament. The way I felt was, 'Am I ever going to come through and break through and play well on links golf and win an Open Championship?'
“Now I know that I can. I know that I’ve done it, and it takes a lot of pressure off me. But more than that, when I arrive as past champion, it just feels terrific.”
As it should. That, however, doesn’t turn back time. Or get the birdies to fall. Once the top of the mountain is reached—and Mickelson did complete the ascent—the only direction left is down.
“It’s just that the memories and emotions that took place last year,” Mickelson said, “and that I created and will have for a lifetime, I’d like to do again...And it almost motivates me to work harder and play even more because I know there’s a finite amount of time.
“As I look back on the highlights of last year’s tournament, it brings out the same emotions that I experienced at the time.”
A time reality dictates never will come again.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.