HOYLAKE, England — Phil Mickelson rolled long putts across the practice green in front of the Royal Liverpool clubhouse, some of them going in, most of them the right distance. He chirped to the caddie of Brandt Snedeker about their money game, a Mickelson tradition at the majors.
Lefty was in good spirits Monday at the British Open, except for having to return the claret jug.
Even that allowed him to reflect on a year of keeping golf’s oldest trophy, and the confidence he finally has when he plays links golf.
“It’s a different feeling for me coming over here now having won this tournament,” Mickelson said. “The way I felt was, ‘Am I ever going to break through and play well on links golf and win an Open Championship?’ Now I know that I can. I know that I’ve done it, and it takes a lot of pressure off me.”
Confidence in links golf? Yes.
In his game? That takes a little more work.
Not even Mickelson would have imagined when he left Muirfield last summer that he would not have another win anywhere in the world. This is the longest he has gone without winning in five years.
And except for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January, where he was runner-up, Mickelson hasn’t been particularly close.
He has missed three cuts. He withdrew twice after narrowly making the cut because of injuries in San Diego and San Antonio.
At the Masters, where he is a three-time champion, Mickelson missed the cut for the first time in 17 years. His lone top 10 on the PGA Tour was last August at The Barclays, a tie for sixth when he closed with a 65.
So why the smile?
“Normally, I would be discourage or frustrated, but I’m just not,” Mickelson said. “I feel like I’ve had some good breakthroughs in some areas. I haven’t had the results. I know I haven’t played well. But the parts feel a lot better than the whole right now. And I don’t know when it will all click together. I don’t know if it will be this week. I don’t know if it will be in three weeks or a month or what, but it should be soon.”
He’s running out of time.
Mickelson is No. 12 in the Ryder Cup standings. He has qualified for every team since 1995 — two years after Jordan Spieth was born. He has reached the FedEx Cup finale for the top 30 at the Tour Championship every year since it began in 2007. With only three starts before the playoffs begin, Mickelson is at No. 97.
Then again, it’s easy for Mickelson not to be overly concerned.
He’s 44 and has been on tour for half of his life, compiling 42 victories on the PGA Tour and five majors, including that claret jug.
It’s at least been a good year for the jug.
He has taken it to golf clubs and corporate outings, shared it with friends and people he had never met. He has let his caddie, Jim Mackay, take it to pose for pictures.
Mickelson had only one rule.
“One of the things I stressed is that we have to treat the claret jug with reverence and respect that it deserves, and only put good stuff in it,” he said. “No bad stuff was allowed. And each person that I brought it to had a different definition of what the good stuff was.”
One definition was a bottle of 1990 Romanee Conti, which can range in price from $16,000 to about $35,000.
“Now, I didn’t know what this was when I drank it,” Mickelson said. “I just knew that it was really good. And that was the best bottle that was ever put in there.”
Like fine wine, Mickelson can only hope he gets better with age.
Even though he had to overcome arthritis in the middle of the 2010 season, and only eight players older than he is right now have won majors, Mickelson doesn’t see that as an obstacle. Sure, he has to work a little harder, train a little better, stretch a little more.
“But I feel better than I have in a long time,” he said.
Padraig Harrington is the last player to repeat as Open champion. Tiger Woods repeated at Royal Liverpool in 2006. Tom Watson won back-to-back some 30 years ago. Winning majors is difficult enough. Winning the same one two years in a row is even harder.
Monday was the first full day of practice for most players, while some took the day off. Woods didn’t show up at the course after practicing both days on the weekend. Some players from the Scottish Open weren’t at Hoylake. Others, like Spieth, arrived Monday morning on a charter from the John Deere Classic and went on to play.
Mickelson closed with a 65 at Royal Aberdeen to tie for 11th in the Scottish Open. He won the Scottish Open a year ago, and believes the lag putting into a crossing wind, along with seeing the ball react on links courses is a big benefit.
Plus, he’s never been so enthusiastic about golf’s oldest championship, mainly because his name is on the trophy.
THE BRITISH OPEN
WHERE: Royal Liverpool Golf Club
TV: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 4 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Phil Mickelson
PRIZE MONEY: 5.4 million pounds ($9.24 million)
WINNER’S SHARE: 975,000 pounds ($1.67 million)