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Phil Mickelson and his Masters buddy Fred Couples took another good look at Royal Liverpool on Tuesday. (Photo: Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson and his Masters buddy Fred Couples took another good look at Royal Liverpool on Tuesday. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mickelson is more than ready to move on, starting now

Hoping to accelerate the healing process from his Winged Foot debacle, Phil Mickelson has thrown himself into his Open preparation. He's played Royal Liverpool so much in recent weeks, in fact, that it's starting to feel like home.

HOYLAKE, England (AP) -- The leather-bound registry is called the "Strangers Book," an inch thick with weathered pages dating to 1980. The latest edition is in the clubhouse at Royal Liverpool for guests to sign when they play the storied links course.

Imagine what Ernie Els must have thought when he showed up to play 10 days after the U.S. Open.

On the line above the first empty space, dated June 26, was the signature of Phil Mickelson from San Diego, Calif.

"They asked me to come sign the club book, and I saw Phil's name there," Els said Tuesday. "And I was like, 'What's he ... is he playing today?' And they said, 'No, he was here two days ago.' And that kind of surprised me a little bit. He's played the course many times. That's the way he wants to prepare. He wants to see the course a million times.

"That's his way right now."

Mickelson was so eager to leave behind his debacle at Winged Foot -- a double-bogey on the 72nd hole that cost him the U.S. Open and a third straight major championship-- that he showed up at Hoylake that next week to start preparing for the Open Championship.

He spent two days at Royal Liverpool, then returned last Thursday to play what amounts to a full tournament. He played four rounds, each of them taking a little more than eight hours as he studied every option off the tee, from the fairway, around the green. Mickelson played Sunday morning, then returned Sunday afternoon and played into the late twilight.

Asked how much they played, caddie Jim Mackay replied, "You want rounds or hours?"

It is hard to argue with the results.

In the last 10 majors, Mickelson has won three times, was runner-up twice and has finished out of the top 10 only two times. It was in 2004, the start of his stellar streak, that he began studying courses as if he were cramming for a final exam, looking at every angle to see where he could take risks and when he should play it safe.

"I feel very confident in the way I've prepared for tournaments and the way I've been playing," he said. "I don't want to let one bad hole interfere with that, which is why I immediately altered my schedule to come over here. I know that my record hasn't been what I wanted it to be at the British Open, and I wanted to have those extra days to really work hard and see if I could bring my best golf out this week."

That could be time well spent this year.

Royal Liverpool has not been part of the Open rotation since 1967, before all but one player in the top 10 was born. It is a mystery that is slowly being unraveled this week, and even the conditions are somewhat foreign.

Britain is going through a heat wave, with the temperature pushing 90 degrees on Tuesday. The ground already is crusty and brown, and the ball is rolling forever.

"This is the driest links course we've ever come to on a Monday, Tuesday," Colin Montgomerie said. "Length, I don't think is an issue. Although it's 7,200-some yards on the card, it must be playing about 5,500 yards in real terms. It's just the control of the ball that has to be found."

Tiger Woods showed up earlier than usual, arriving on the weekend, and he brought along an old friend, his 2-iron.

Woods recently replaced that with a 5-wood to get the ball up more quickly, but that's the last thing he needs at Hoylake. He hit 2-iron off just about every par 4 during his practice round Tuesday morning, a stinger that rolls endlessly along the brittle fairway.

"I like the feeling of trying to take advantage of the fast fairways and roll the ball out there," Woods said. "The 2-iron enables me to do that."

Woods chose to navigate his way around the bunkers. Other players have thought about hammering tee shots over the bunkers, especially with the grass so dry that there isn't much rough for the ball to nestle.

Mickelson, naturally, has tried a little bit of everything.

He has found there are at least two ways, sometimes three, to play every hole. He says he has experienced wind from eight directions during his time at Hoylake, so he's not sure which one to expect. Even so, Hoylake is starting to feel like a home course.

"Part of learning the golf course is knowing where the balls will roll and funnel, and I've learned enough to know where the ball will end up, and be able to control it from there," he said.

Mickelson didn't bother to see who else signed the "Strangers Book" when he first arrived at Royal Liverpool, although flipping one page back would have revealed a certain Jack Nicklaus on May 16, playing the course as part of a corporate day for the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The book goes back only 26 years, too new to show names like Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen among past champions.

Still, Mickelson was soaking up history, walking up the stairs in the clubhouse to see a large portrait of Jones. This is where Jones won the second leg of his Grand Slam in 1930, when he won the British Amateur and Open, then the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur.

"Having been part of Bobby Jones' Grand Slam is terrific and exciting, and having it be part of Peter Thomson's stretch of three British Opens in the '50s, I thought that was cool," he said.

It might have caused him to wince, however.

Except for that double-bogey at the U.S. Open, Mickelson might be going for his own version of the Grand Slam, a shot at his fourth straight. But he's not about to look back.

Someone asked Mickelson if he felt he had anything to prove this week, and it was as close as Lefty comes to bristling.

"Why would you say that?" he said, his voice level.

The reporter mentioned how badly the U.S. Open ended, that perhaps Mickelson wanted to show that was an exception.

"There was a long time where I wasn't really proud of my performance in the majors," Mickelson replied. "But the last couple of years, I'm pretty proud of that. So again, one bad hole isn't going to change the way I look at that."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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