Mickelson’s post-game interview revealed him grappling with a Major challenge
British Open champion was simply focusing on the tough task of mastering Muirfield
Phil Mickelson holds the Claret Jug after winning the British Open golf championship at Muirfield in Scotland. Photo: TobyMelville/Reuters
Phil Mickelson settled into the interview chair in the BBC makeshift studio in East Lothian last Thursday having completed his first round in the 142nd Open Championship. A candid face peered out from below the visor and ruffled hair.
He had three-putted the last from a short distance and was ready to say exactly what he thought of the set-up at Muirfield. With eyes widening, he suggested about a third of most greens were dead. He wasn’t shocked by the demise of portions of the greens, rather the turmoil of having to putt on them.
Phil was not smiling, he was not trying to placate, he said exactly what he thought. How refreshing. He echoed the thoughts of most of his colleagues; the challenging but fairest design of all Open courses was brought to the very edge of reason and had arguably teetered over the other side.
What Mickelson was also doing was going through a bit of post-game therapy. He had been given a harsh introduction to the nature of links in a heatwave and a sparing policy on watering. If he wanted to win the Claret Jug he was going to have to get his head around the qualities needed.
Big Phil had obviously come to terms with the whimsical nature of the hard-pan undulations of Castle Stuart the previous week in Inverness which ended in a Scottish Open victory.
You have to be mentally resilient and extremely adaptable to embrace a type of golf you almost never encounter on any tour worldwide. The last time I remember greens as firm was in the US Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. I can not recall fairways as quick as Muirfield last week.
When you have to hit a four-iron to keep short of a bunker 300 yards away you know you are dealing with severe conditions. It was a form of golf, but not as we have come to know it.
This automatically ruled out a huge swathe of the field. The mental battle involved in coming to terms with unexpected bounces (usually sideways, often hard) in a game increasingly numbed by total ball control on perfectly preened greens was beyond most competitors.
The numbers we use on a weekly basis for guidance were only a very rough tool of assistance when calculating a shot. Mickelson was doing us all a favour by bringing up the elephant in the room, but most of all, he was helping himself by getting his head around the skills needed to prevail.
Ian Poulter, more characteristically, was also telling it as he saw it. He made a reference to “crazy golf” in a tweet but seemed remarkably restrained in his television interview. How talented an interviewee he has become.
However, both critics of the course set-up figured out how to play it in the most stressful conditions on Sunday .
Poulter shot a stunning 67 to post a one-over-par total which seemed like it was going to be the play-off number. Meanwhile, Mickelson was proving he had developed the skills required to win – and he was doing it on the back nine, when champions come to the fore.
It is not something Phil has done in his career, playing the final nine holes of a Major well. But he has had more experience than any current player of being in that situation. He not only handled the extreme challenge of a motorway-like Muirfield, but relished the test and left the rest of the field for dust.
He brought his caddie of 21 years, Jim “Bones” Mackay to tears with four birdies in the last six holes.
I can’t describe the stress players and caddies were under trying to make sense of numbers and clubs that really shouldn’t add up – but did – on the parched windswept links. This was a whole new discipline, even for the well-versed Phil and Bones. They have the most intense dialogues before each shot is hit and obviously their strategy worked particularly well on the back nine in Muirfield last Sunday.
If Mickelson’s frankness was a part of his winning formula in East Lothian last Thursday, we can expect more openness in the future from contenders who publicly articulate what they need to do to win.