TROON, Scotland -- In Scottish parlance, Phil Mickelson was “drookit” after a wet 18-holes out on the links of Royal Troon. But not even the almost constant precipitation that accompanied the leader of the 145th Open Championship over his back-nine could wipe the smile off his face. Apparently enveloped by a feeling of contentment, the 46-year old Californian was more than satisfied with the 69 he added to his opening 63. At 10-under par, he was one shot clear of Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.
“I really enjoy the challenge that this weather and these elements provide,” said Mickelson. “I thought this was a good round to back up the low round yesterday. I played kind of steer-free golf again. I did make one or two bad swings that left to bogeys but for the most part I kept the ball in play.”
Indeed he did. Not until his thirtieth hole of the week did Mickelson drop his first shot, a remarkable feat in the deteriorating conditions. Where once he would have folded, the 2013 “champion golfer of the year” dug in on the course where he first gave an indication that his claiming a Claret Jug was even a remote possibility.
Even now, Mickelson has recorded only three top-ten finishes in golf’s oldest and most important event. In comparison, he has 15 in the Masters, ten in the US Open and nine in the PGA Championship. But back in 2004, not too far removed from a Masters victory that broke his majors duck at the age of 34, a combination of new-found confidence and a well conceived strategy saw him pull up in third place, one shot out of the playoff between Ernie Els and eventual champion Todd Hamilton.
“In December of 2003, I spent time with Dave Pelz,” he revealed. “We started working on these little half-shots. I worked on taking 10-15 yards off my wedges. I shortened my backswing but everything else would be the same. Every position I adopted at the top of my backswing, I had to accelerate through impact as I would normally. The difference is I could hit to different yardages. And, by shortening my swing, I didn’t have the same speed through the ball. So I created less spin.
“The other thing I did at Troon was hit 5-irons all along the ground from 150-yards out. I did that on a few holes, noting where the ball would go. The 9th was one hole where it worked perfectly, the ball finishing on the front-right portion of the green. The mound on the right was high and it created a funnel-effect for the ball to follow. All of which meant 2004 was the first time I played effective shots on the ground at the Open Championship.”
The same has been so far in 2016. One day on from his third bogey-free Open round -- all have been shot at Royal Troon -- Mickelson slipped only twice against par, at the 12th and 15th. Those dropped shots were, however, comfortably outnumbered by four birdies at the 4th, 7th, 8th (where his tee shot stopped inches from the cup) and 14th. Not surprisingly, holing-out well from close range has been a feature of his fine play.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working on putts inside ten-feet,” he reveals. “If I want to be one of the best players in the world, I have to be one of the best putters from ten-feet and in. I have hit about 5,000 putts in my house over the last couple of years. I hit ten six-footers with my regular grip. Then ten with the ‘claw’ grip. I make about 70 percent of those putts with my regular grip. But I make 85 percent using the claw. So, over the duration I make many more putts with the claw. Because, from that distance the ‘start-line’ is so much more important. As you get to longer distances, the speed becomes more important.”
Still, for all the success he has enjoyed on the greens over the first 36 holes, one putt in particular lingers in the memory. How did that 20-footer for 62 on the last green in the opening round miss?
“I watched it last night,” said Mickelson. “It finally made sense. It looks like three or four inches short of the hole it hit something and kicked it dead right. It happens, unfortunately.”