ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — All week in the run-up to the 150th Open Championship, Phil Mickelson has been following the worst advice in golf: keep your head down. So no Champions Dinner for the 2013 Open winner. No posing with the other Champion Golfers of the Year for the traditional photograph in front of the R&A clubhouse. No interaction with the media. No anything really, his mantra clear: stay out of the way as much as possible.
Hang on though. At the weekend it was reported that Mickelson had pulled out of those pre-Open festivities of his own volition, but that narrative shifted more than a little when he revealed that the initial suggestion had come from the championship organizers.
“The R&A contacted me a couple weeks before and said, ‘Look, we don't think it's a great idea you go, but if you want to, you can,’” said Mickelson. “I just didn't want to make a big deal about it, so I said fine. We both kind of agreed that it would be best if I didn’t."
Pressed more than once by the man from The Guardian to reveal more on how this issue was affecting his mood and general psyche, Mickelson revealed some uncharacteristic tetchiness.
“Let it go, dude,” he sighed. “Let it go. That's three times you've asked the same question.”
Moving right along, what was never in doubt was the 52-year-old’s ability to tee-up in an Open over the Old Course for a sixth time. Which is not to say an early tee time far from the featured groups wasn’t a less-than subtle message sent to such a high-profile player, the second-best American of his generation. So it was that, at 7:30 a.m.—when it was still Wednesday in his home state of California—the eyes of not-long out-of-bed spectators were trained on Mickelson as he stood on golf’s most famous first tee.
Which is not to say he wasn’t making what could easily be interpreted as a subconscious effort to go incognito. Unshaven, dressed all in (logo-free) black and wearing his now familiar dark glasses, Mickelson could have passed for the anti-hero in some long forgotten film noire.
Still, while the reception he received from the already large crowd was hardly in keeping with his stature in the game, a positive if slightly muted round of applause was punctuated by only a few murmurings of dissent. Which was a long way from what Tom Lehman endured at the 1999 Dunhill Cup. Two weeks after the 1996 Open champion led the infamous charge across the 17th green at Brookline during the Ryder Cup, his first-tee introduction was met with a stony and clearly point-making silence.
Mickelson, for all that so many disapprove of his high-profile involvement in the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series, was at least spared such obvious contempt. Which is perhaps just as well. Despite his many protestations to the contrary—“I couldn't be happier”—the father of three does not look like a man whose world is devoid of problems. His face and eyes carry a world-weary aspect that was never there before the word “LIV” appeared in Mickelson’s life.
He was having none of such suggestions though.
“I couldn't be more excited and ecstatic with where I'm at,” he insisted. “I love the [LIV] events. I get to have golf in my life and competitive golf in my life on a scale that is fun, exciting and different. That lets me play and compete but still do the things outside that I want to do. I've got a nice trip lined up after this and things that I haven't been able to do in the past. I couldn't be happier.”
Whatever the truth or otherwise of those claims, one thing hasn’t changed too much. On the evidence of this opening round, Mickelson’s golf was its usual mix of adventure, genius and, as has become the case recently, occasional sloppiness. The bunker shot he played to the 2nd green from sand normally associated with the adjoining 16th green was vintage Mickelson. But the careless three-putts at the 11th and (from the Valley of Sin) 18th he would later bemoan turned a promising 70 into a mediocre 72.
Again, no surprise. The Old Course has never been a place eager to enter into a new and positive relationship with Mickelson. In five previous visits to the Home of Golf, his best finish is T-11 in 2000.
“My record at St. Andrews is pretty underwhelming,” he admits. “But my game doesn’t feel far off at all. It just doesn’t. I let a few strokes slide today, but for the most part, I actually feel pretty good with, like, the parts. I’ve just got to bring them together to make the whole. I actually think I have some good rounds in me. I think I'm going to play really well the next few days.
“The challenge for me is that I really struggle in a strong slice wind, right-to-left for me,” he continues. “On half of the holes I have to contend with that. So I struggled off the tee. But I believe that is over now. My dispersion in that wind was massive. But I have addressed that. I’ll play better than I have in the past.”
Maybe. But only if he keeps his head relatively still rather than down.
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