Prior to 2004, it is fair to say few people would have marked Phil Mickelson down as a future Open Champion, not even the man himself.
However, the year that featured Mickelson’s long-awaited first major triumph at The Masters, was also notable for a significant breakthrough at golf’s original Championship.
Although ‘Lefty’ registered a remarkable 17 top-10 finishes in majors prior to his first success at Augusta, not a single one of those came in The Open.
Mickelson may have been enamoured by the unique challenge of links golf, having grown up idolising three-time Champion Golfer of the Year Seve Ballesteros, but he initially found his own game ill-suited to conditions on the coasts of the British Isles.
“It wasn’t until I was in high school, and I remember watching Seve get really excited (at St Andrews in 1984), that I started having dreams of winning The Open Championship,” recalled Mickelson in his Chronicles of a Champion Golfer film.
“He was just exciting to watch. He always had that go-for-broke attitude. Seve’s approach is exactly what I loved about Seve. I loved the recovery shot and nobody had more of them and nobody pulled them off more than Seve.
“I had a great first experience of The Open Championship in ’91 (at Royal Birkdale). I ended up playing not a great first round and came back with a 67 to make the cut.
“I remember hitting balls on the range and the wind was straight in (to your face) on the range and I was trying to keep the ball down and hitting these low shots, but they were spinning too much - they were floating in the air even though they were only 12 feet off the ground.
“And then (I remember) watching Seve do it. Seve was able to take the spin off the golf ball, get it on the ground and get it running, and it took me a while to understand how to do that. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would to learn how to do that.”
It would, in fact, be more than a decade until Mickelson felt fully comfortable playing the sort of low, running shot that often proves so effective at The Open.
After a series of disappointing appearances in the Championship, he finally turned a corner in 2004 when he arrived at Royal Troon high on confidence just three months on from breaking his major duck at Augusta.
Todd Hamilton was the surprise Open winner that year, edging out Ernie Els in a play-off after the two men had each finished the 72nd hole on 10 under par.
Yet, for the first time, Mickelson was firmly in the mix on Sunday, ultimately missing out on the play-off by a solitary stroke following back-to-back rounds of 68 over the weekend.
Thirteen years after being inspired by the flight of Ballesteros’ shots on the practice range at Birkdale, the Californian was at last controlling his ball as he wanted.
“We had worked on a particular shot that would take spin off the golf ball,” he explained. “And by shortening the backswing instead of changing ball position I was able to make the same golf swings and hit the ball lower without spin.
“It was the first year that I felt I really could win The Open Championship.”
Troon in 2004 may have given Mickelson the belief he could one day claim the Claret Jug, but his long journey to eventual Open glory was still some way from being completed.
'Lefty' was able to follow up his first Masters win with a further three major titles over the next six years, but it was not until 2011 that he again threatened to win The Open, courtesy of a spectacular final-round charge at Royal St George’s.
When Mickelson teed off on Sunday trailing leader Darren Clarke by five strokes, he knew something special was required if he was to move into serious contention. He certainly delivered.
Undeterred by the sort of strong winds and rain that would have caused him so many problems earlier in his career, Mickelson birdied three of the first six holes and then eagled the seventh to surge into a share of the lead.
“That front nine was almost magical,” he recalled. “I hit every shot about as perfect as I could in horrific weather and made the putts, and really propelled myself right up the leaderboard to the point where I thought I was gonna win.
“I was having a blast because I was playing great, hitting the shots, and the weather was so brutal, and everybody in contention was having to deal with it. All the players that had a shot to win were playing in these difficult conditions and I was playing some of my best golf. It was about as much fun as I’ve had.
“I loved having that momentum, having that feel, but every time you get it going you just never know if it’s gonna leave you.”
After birdieing the 10th to get to six under for the day and tournament, Mickelson missed a short putt for par at 11 and was unable to regain his momentum thereafter.
“It kind of shook me and I had a hard time getting it back,” he added.
A trio of further bogeys followed down the stretch and he ultimately had to settle for a share of second, three shots behind Clarke.
Nevertheless, Mickelson had again proved he was capable of thriving in The Open. He left Royal St George’s in a positive frame of mind, despite seeing victory elude him.
“I might have felt a little more discouraged if I felt like that was my last great opportunity to win The Open, and I didn’t feel that way,” he reasoned. “In fact, I think The Open Championship, because it’s much more of a precision game and it’s impossible to overpower links golf, I feel like as you get older in your career you have more and more chances.
“It didn’t bother me that other people doubted that I would win The Open Championship. It made perfect sense. I didn’t grow up on links golf and I’ve not had a great record, but I could see it starting to turn.
“I could see the opportunity in 2004, the close call in 2011. I could see my play in The Open Championship get better and better, and I knew that as I got older this tournament was gonna continue to provide opportunities to win.”
Mickelson’s next opportunity was not long in coming. After missing the cut at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2012, he found himself firmly in contention once again 12 months later at Muirfield.
As had been the case at Royal St George’s, he was five shots off the lead when the final round began. This time, however, there was no denying Mickelson.
On his 20th Open appearance, he called on the vast experience he had garnered over the years to shoot a sublime five-under 66 in breezy conditions, with four birdies in the last six holes enough to secure victory by three strokes.
In 1991, at his first Open, Mickelson had watched on with admiration as Ballesteros showcased his skill in the wind. Twenty-two years later, it was Mickelson who proved the class of the field when the gusts picked up around Muirfield.
“The greatest challenge that I faced in my career was developing the skills to win at links golf and win The Open Championship, because I had to overcome so much more to get there, and learn and be patient and develop the skills needed,” Mickelson said.
“And it took a couple of decades, but I finally did it.”
Mickelson was, of course, involved in another wonderful Open finale at Royal Troon in 2016, when he and Henrik Stenson – the runner-up in 2013 – stormed clear of the pack and engaged in a thrilling final-round duel that evoked memories of the Duel in the Sun between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in 1977.
Despite shooting an excellent 65 in the final round at Troon, Mickelson had to settle for his second runner-up finish at The Open as Stenson secured glory with a sensational 63.
As he begins life after 50, Mickelson certainly looks capable of challenging for the Claret Jug again in the future.
“It’s given me so much pleasure and satisfaction, being able to be an Open Champion, but I feel like this tournament’s going to continue to provide opportunities to win,” he said.
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