Phil Mickelson tied for 60th at the 2005 Open Championship at St. Andrews. (Getty Images)
Phil's puzzle: Why does Mickelson struggle so much at Open Championship?
Phil Mickelson has become a consistent contender, and four-time winner, at the American majors, but he's yet to get a handle on the Open Championship. Even after so many years, he's not sure why that is.
By Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer had the PGA Championship; Sam Snead the U.S. Open. And Phil Mickelson, apparently, has the British Open.
Four great champions -- all with a large hole in their World Golf Hall of Fame resumes.
But while Watson, Palmer and Snead occasionally came close to winning their elusive championships, Mickelson seems adrift when he crosses the Atlantic Ocean. In his 16 career starts at the British Open, he has contended just once -- in 2004, when he finished third, a shot out of the Todd Hamilton-Ernie Els playoff at Royal Troon.
In Mickelson’s other 15 starts at the oldest major championship, he’s had as much fun in Europe as the Griswalds. He has had no other top-10, and in his next closest showing, he tied for 11th in 2000, a distant 12 shots behind winner Tiger Woods. Mickelson has three missed cuts at the British and a stroke average of 72.48.
This is a stark contrast to Mickelson’s steely performance in the other majors: he’s won three of the last seven Masters; he has been second in five of the last 12 U.S. Opens; and he has a victory and two other top-10s in his last seven PGA Championships.
For his part, Mickelson -- who skipped last year’s British Open because his wife, Amy, and mother had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer -- admits he’s stumped to understand why his game doesn’t travel along with his passport.
“The fact it’s different from what we play day-in, day-out in the United States makes it something I relish,” Mickelson said. “Variety makes links golf so exciting because there are so many different ways to play the shots. You have to be creative and let the feel of the shot come out. For some reason, I’ve not played in The Open the way I would have liked.”
Mickelson, who recently turned 40, gets another crack at the Claret Jug this week when the British Open returns to legendary St. Andrews. In three starts at golf’s home, he’s been 40th, 11th and 60th.
While these are disappointing results for the four-time major champion -- remember, Jack Nicklaus once said that for a player to be considered truly great, he has to win at St. Andrews -- Mickelson is convinced St. Andrews is a place where his creativity can carry him to victory.
“The best example I see when I play links golf is the 18th at St. Andrews with the Valley of Sin,” he said. “I see a lot of guys play it a lot of different ways and that’s what links golf offers, a lot of options. A lot of guys get down in that valley and chip it out so they don't have to putt up the slope. I see some guys bump it into that hillside with spin, I see a lot of guys putt it and I see a lot of bump-and-run shots.”
There has long been a belief Mickelson didn’t play well in the United Kingdom because of his high ball flight and high-spin ratio. But Mickelson’s short-game guru, Dave Pelz, says that’s no longer the case. Technology and hard work on the range has helped enable Mickelson lower his ball trajectory when needed.
“He did not have a wind game,” Pelz said, “but we’ve worked on that quite hard over the last seven years and I think he’s prepared to play in the wind.”
Others say Mickelson’s greatest strength -- his impeccable short-game -- is mitigated at the British Open because of the vastly different playing conditions. While Mickelson may be contemplating hitting his patented high lob, many of his rivals are taking putters from 30 yards off the green.
Mickelson, who rarely travels overseas for appearance fees, admits he’s not as comfortable on the inconsistent British Open putting surfaces. As a result, he almost has to rip up his game plan when he plays in Great Britain.
“We talk about angles, but in America on a lot of our courses it doesn’t matter,” Mickelson said. “Here, you've got to plan for 20 to 50 yards of roll, so angles are critical. You want to have good decision-making.”
Mickelson could overtake Woods as the No. 1-ranked player in the world with a victory at St. Andrews. More importantly, he’d be a third step closer to joining Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as winners of the career Grand Slam.
That’s the kind of company Mickelson would rather keep instead of being lumped with players who never won a fourth major. Mickelson insists he has a great chance to end his Open Championship drought and win his second major in his last three starts.
“Because I won the Masters, the year is successful,” Mickelson said. “But I do have high expectations for the rest of the year. If I’m not able to perform at the level I played at in Augusta in big events, I wouldn’t look at the year as being great.”