SOUTHPORT, England -- Despite all the buildup of Phil Mickelson coming to the British Open as the No. 2 player in the world in a field without Tiger Woods, he was really much closer to longshot than favorite.
For a player with 34 PGA Tour victories, including three major championships, Mickelson's British Open record is abysmal. Starting with his first in 1991, he has been inside the top 20 only twice--a tie for 11th at St. Andrews in 2000 and a solo third at Troon in 2004.
It was at Troon that Mickelson proved he is capable of winning the British Open. His problem is that he has to make a radical deviation from his normal game to do well.
Mickelson is a high-ball, high-spin player. It's the result of the steep angle of his downswing and a compensating handsy-ness in the hitting area. Without his best timing (which he had at Troon), in a high wind it is difficult for him to get the ball to hold the line or to go the right distance. In short, on a windy links, he lacks sufficient control of the ball.
Mickelson has been working on lowering both his spin and his ball flight for awhile now. With both Rick Smith and currently Butch Harmon on the full swing, and Dave Pelz on shots inside 125 yards, Mickelson has strived to shorten his swing and quiet his leg action through the ball, creating more of a sweeping action with the clubhead.
Sometimes it has been noticeable, particularly at last year's Players Championship, in some ways Mickelson's most impressive win ever because it required him to truly implement some dramatic changes. But in 2008, Mickelson's backswing still seems long at the top, and his legs still sag more through the hitting area than almost any of his peers.
For the most part, he hasn't played well. On the PGA Tour, he has been erratic, his tie for fifth at the Masters and victory at Colonial his only top 10s in his last 11 events. In his trans-Atlantic tuneup for Royal Birkdale, he finished T-38 last week in the Scottish Open.
At Birkdale, Mickelson caught an unlucky morning of severe weather in his opening round on Thursday. In high wind and high rough, he is at a higher risk of a big number than most, and he suffered a triple-bogey 7 on the sixth hole on his way to a nine-over-par 79.
It also occurs that though Mickelson's greatest strength is that he is so often able to erase ball-striking mistakes with his short game, he seems to have more trouble doing so on a championship links. Although he has proven himself great at all kinds of chips and pitches of varying heights, they all usually carry a lot of spin. Links greens are almost always less receptive to spin than even the much faster surfaces of the Masters or U.S. Open, and Mickelson seems less than a master of the subsequent bounce and roll.
Mickelson came back strong with a two-under 68 on Friday to get within eight shots of the lead. After a bogey on the seventh hole, he was 10 over for the tournament and looking like he would miss the cut. But he birdied three of the last 10 holes, hitting 14 of 18 greens on the day. It was one of Mickelson's best stretches of play ever in a British Open, but remained more notable for being rare than for a sign of things to come.