Mickelson has chance at another Claret Jug where it all began
Much has transpired since a fresh-faced Phil Mickelson first strode to the tee at Royal Birkdale.
The year was 1991, and Mickelson had just wrapped up his junior year at Arizona State. His professional debut was still nearly a year away.
But a tournament that was marked by Ian Baker-Finch’s breakthrough victory also served as Mickelson’s debut in The Open, the first of 23 appearances highlighted by his stint as Champion Golfer of the Year in 2013. Now he returns to the English coast to make appearance No. 24, this time with an unfamiliar face on the bag.
The fact that Mickelson’s triumph four years ago at Muirfield remains his most recent worldwide victory certainly comes as a surprise, but any questions about his ability to contend on the biggest stage were answered last year at Royal Troon. At age 46, he fired an opening-round 63 and ultimately became a hard-luck runner-up to Henrik Stenson in one of the most memorable final-round duels in championship history.
But the southpaw was a spectator for the most recent major, skipping the U.S. Open at Erin Hills to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. Days later came news that he and caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay had split, unexpectedly ending a 25-year relationship.
Mickelson will now look to tackle Royal Birkdale with his brother on the bag, as Tim Mickelson will split his time this summer as both caddie to Phil and agent to rising star Jon Rahm. The fraternal bond allows for a level of comfort and familiarity, and it means that the five-time major champ will need to rely on a healthy stockpile of links knowledge accrued over a lengthy career.
This marks Mickelson’s fourth trip to Royal Birkdale, where he has made the cut in each of his three prior appearances and tied for 19th in 2008. Of the venues in the Open rota, he has played only St. Andrews more often, and he holds the Southport links in high regard.
“I’ve always had an affinity for that golf course. I’ve always loved it, and enjoyed it, and felt that it was a good course for me,” Mickelson said. “I’m excited to go back there because it’s where I first believed that I could win The Open.”
Mickelson has always been a wizard around the greens, but his battle for the Claret Jug centered around controlling the ball into them. While his high trajectory and spin rate yielded great success in the U.S., they often left him vulnerable to the unpredictable nature of links golf. It took him 12 tries before he finally notched a top-10 finish at The Open, a third-place result at Royal Troon in 2004.
Slowly but surely, he began to craft his game around the requirements of links play, knowing full well that the courses would make no concessions in his direction. After an inauspicious start to his Open career, Mickelson enters this week off a six-year run that has seen him win at Muirfield and twice receive the Silver Salver as runner-up, in 2011 at Royal St. George’s and again last year.
“I knew that I was in for a real challenge, because I was not able to hit the ball low enough with the small amount of spin necessary to flight the ball properly there,” Mickelson said. “I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me, and that’s why I feel like it was such an accomplishment. It took me longer than I thought it would, but I did think that I would win it.”
His change at caddie aside, the last 12 months have been relatively frustrating for a player used to winning – and contending – on a regular basis. He has only one worldwide top-5 finish since his runner-up at last year’s Open, as a string of top-25 finishes have yielded few true opportunities to challenge for titles.
“It’s been an interesting year so far,” Mickelson said before The Greenbrier Classic, his most recent start where he tied for 20th. “I’ve played consistent, but not but not to the level of where I want to get in the winners’ circle.”He’ll hope for another opportunity to rekindle the magic this week, back where it all began. The caddie is new and the face may be a bit more weathered than when he first debuted at Royal Birkdale 27 years ago, but the form that once helped Mickelson lift the Claret Jug still lurks just beneath the surface.