SANDWICH, England -- The fans flocking to the Kent Coast this weekend might be treated to one of the rarest sights in golf: Phil Mickelson contending in a British Open.
The second-most marketable American of the past two decades has been a mysterious creature on the British rota. For all of Mickelson's unique, creative gifts, he has rarely solved the riddle of his missing links game, only once finishing in the top 10 in 17 previous British starts.
Yet armed with a "fresh start" mentality by way of pretending this is the first time he has ever played the oldest tournament in golf, Mickelson is three missed short putts away from sharing the early midway lead at Royal St. George's.
"It's fun to be in contention at any major, but it's fun for me to be in contention at the Open championship because I haven't been here that often," said Mickelson, whose only real opportunity to win the Claret Jug came in 2004 at Royal Troon, when he finished one shot out of a playoff. "I just saw a stat that I've only been in contention a few times heading into the weekend, and this is really a fun tournament.
"So to have a chance to be right in it, it's exciting."
What's most exciting to Mickelson is this new attitude he packed with him for the trip to southeast England. He scared away most of the "punters" with his pre-tournament talk about finally learning to play the links as a 41-year-old man with arthritis.
|British Open 2011|
After recording exactly one major victory over the entire arc of history, these Irish people are clearly unstoppable. Read More >>
"I'm trying not to dwell and don't want to look back on my past performances that haven't been what I expect," Mickelson said Tuesday. "But I feel excited and kind of reinvigorated to come over here and try to learn this style of golf and play it effectively."
What does that mean?
Well, in theory, gone is the tendency to try to force the links to conform to his style of play rather than the other way around. He's flying his ball lower through the wind instead of letting it billow up into it and get carried further off line into real trouble. Consequently, his misses the first two days have been relatively minor, keeping him on an even keel and in red figures.
"I've been working on this very low shot off the tee, very low driver, low 3-wood, and I've been able to control it and get it to roll along the ground easy, and I'm not fighting the wind as much," he said. "So when I get a direct crosswind, I get the ball on the ground quicker and I don't have that big miss as much because it's not in the air as long.
"Some of the shots we hit here we'll never have to hit in the States, a driver that carries 180, 200, just get it on the ground and get it running. We don't really have that need for the shot over in the States. It's fun to have to learn how to hit those effectively."
Jim Mackay, Mickelson's caddie, says that the work with swing coach Butch Harmon has made a difference this week more than any other.
"People like to make a big deal out of his record not being as good as people would like it to be in this tournament," Mackay said. "I tend to think that the work he does with Butch will show up more here than elsewhere. ... I think it's a case of his ball-striking getting better and better."
The vagaries of St. George's have left more than a few of the marquee players this week grumbling about perfect shots that somehow meander into trouble. This is where Mickelson's creative instincts -- if engaged -- have clicked along with his fresh attitude. Where other guys grow frustrated, Mickelson looks to the challenge of the recovery in a way reminiscent of the late Seve Ballesteros.
|Phil Mickelson leaves himself with a chance on the weekend, which deserves a thumbs up. (AP)|
"I just wanted to start fresh because I've loved links golf," Mickelson said. "I just had to really enjoy the challenge of it more. I've always loved the different shots that are required and the strategy about how the courses are designed with the bunker placements. One day they're not in play because of the wind and the wind changes and now they are. I just think this is really a fun way to play golf, and I wanted to have kind of a fresh start."
About the only thing letting Mickelson down through two rounds is his putter. On Thursday he inexplicably missed an 18-inch putt on 11, quite likely the shortest of his stellar career. In the first seven holes Friday he missed a pair of 4-footers, the second of which would have delivered an eagle after a perfect approach that tracked right at the hole.
"I couldn't have hit a better shot; it couldn't have been an easier putt," he said. "But you know, I just missed it."
While Mackay explained "you can't assume making 5-footers over here," Mickelson believes those few short misses were more of an aberration than a trend.
"I felt so much better with the putter heading in," he said. "I haven't putted as well as I expect to, but I'm putting better than I have in the past on these greens. So it's getting there. Hopefully it'll improve for the weekend."
While the forecast for Saturday is calling for wind and rain on a "Biblical" scale, according to one BBC meteorologist, Mickelson welcomes it. It seems to be another facet of the new approach, since the old Mickelson has never proven to be much of a mudder or a wind-cheater.
"Historically I have not played great in windy conditions and rain, but I welcome the challenge," he said. "The fact that everybody is going to have to play in it just means that you can make up ground with pars rather than have to make birdies. I'm looking forward to that challenge and I'm hoping I've got the shots now to be effective in it."
That said, it certainly didn't hurt that Mickelson enjoyed the most benign weather conditions late Thursday afternoon and early Friday morning, instead of last year when he got the worst of the draw.
"I got fortunate being on the good wave of the tee times, going late-early, and had a chance the front nine to shoot something low," he said. "The weather was kind of down, the wind was kind of down. Didn't quite do it."
All of this -- the new attitude, the new strategy, the new low-ball shots -- has put Mickelson in a new place among the contenders. Whether it leads to lifting the Claret Jug on Sunday or not, Mickelson believes it's a step in the right direction.
"I can feel things are starting to turn a little bit," he said. "But whether it's this week or next week or two months from now, I can tell I'm getting it back to where I have been and where I want to be."
Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for the Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com.