HOYLAKE, England – If you happened to tune in at the wrong time to catch a little action from Royal Liverpool with your Friday morning muffin, you might assume Phil Mickelson played his way straight out of this British Open.
You might want to check again.
Mickelson was at his Mickelsonian best on a blustery Friday morning, mixing an array of squirrelly shots with brilliant recoveries that, capped by an eight-foot birdie putt at the par-5 18th, added up to a two-under 70 that left him at even par for the tournament, and still in the running to defend his Open title.
“I played really well today, but there were a couple of loose shots,” Mickelson said afterward. “I ended up giving four or five shots away, but I played really well. There was like a mental barrier to get it back to even par, so that putt on 18 was big.”
We’ll find out just how big this weekend, but first let’s take stock of Mickelson’s wild ride on Friday. With the wind steadily blowing at 15 to 20 mph and gusts well over 30, Mickelson bogeyed the narrow par-4 3rd hole to fall to three over for the championship, putting the defending champion in danger of missing the cut.
Instead, Mickelson fought his way through the wind, and improbably back into the tournament.
On the par-4 4th, Mickelson missed the fairway, but he drew a nice lie on a spectators’ path. He ripped an iron shot just above the hole that nearly sucked back in for an eagle but was good for a kick-in birdie. “I ended up getting a very lucky break, because I was in a hard rock-down area and I was able to get some spin,” Mickelson said. “There were some really bad spots over there, and I was lucky not to find them.”
On the par-5 6th Mickelson drove into the right rough, but he lasered his approach up the chute to 12 feet, then canned the putt for eagle. Just like that, he was back to even par.
And then it all nearly came apart. He stuffed another one inside 10 feet on the par-4 7th but couldn’t convert. “A terrible putt—I came up and out of it,” he said. At the next hole, he faced a delicate chip from a fluffy lie, normally his bread and putter, but he flat-out stubbed the shot. leading to a bogey. On the par-5 10th, Mickelson appeared to burn through the last of his nine lives when he bombed his tee shot out of bounds. He dropped his head into his hands and took a ball from caddie Jim (Bones) MacKay.
And then he proceeded to rescue his round again. His piped the reload down the middle, smoked a 6-iron from 213 yards to six feet and holed the putt for a did-that-just-happen par. “It was a crazy par save, wasn't it?” he said grinning. Mickelson strung together seven more pars on the back nine before closing with the satisfying birdie.
Earlier this week Mickelson made the web-viral-worthy confession that he drank a $40,000 bottle of wine out of the Claret Jug during his year with the renowned trophy. He may need some help from Rory McIlroy, but this weekend Mickelson has a chance to extend those good times for another 365 days. One reason not to count him out: Last year at Muirfield, Mickelson was five shots back entering the final round and still four behind when he made the turn. With rough weather expected this weekend at Royal Liverpool, he has a chance to become the first repeat Open champion since Padraig Harrington in 2008.
“Tomorrow when the conditions come in, there's going to be a lot of scores that go five, six, seven over par,” Mickelson said. “I'm striking it so good. And if I putt the way I putted the last nine holes for the weekend, I'm going to have a good chance.”