So what's the lowdown on the crazy Mickelson gameplan this week? First there was the two-driver strategy at the 2006 Masters, which he won. Then there was the no-driver strategy for the first two rounds of this year's U.S. Open, which some other dude won with a one-leg strategy. In between, Mickelson deployed the five-wedges strategy at Colonial, which he won.
"Phil has 19 clubs," said his short game coach, Dave Pelz, "and he'll decide what to put in and what to take out depending on the weather on Thursday. But he'll probably go with four wedges."
If it's windy, Mickelson said he would carry a 2-iron to keep the ball low. If it's calm, the hybrid comes off the bench. And, yes, there will be a driver in the bag, but just one. He flew into Royal Birkdale last week for the now traditional Team Mickelson spying mission. Accompanied by his caddie and Pelz, Mickelson got up close and personal with the first links he ever played, as an amateur, back in the day of Ian Baker-Finch's victory in 1991.
Mickelson's record in the British Open as a professional has been poor for a three-time major winner. He missed the cut last year and has only one top 10; he was third at Royal Troon in 2004, just one shot off the playoff won by Todd Hamilton. (Remember him? Ernie Els does.) But, crucially, that was the first full season of his partnership with Pelz, and Mickelson had already broken his major drought at the 2004 Masters.
"Troon was the first time I felt comfortable and confident playing links golf over here," Mickelson said. "I had been working with Pelz on taking some spin off my short irons to control my trajectory. I've always been a high spin player, so it's taken me a while to get the spin off. At a lot of courses we play, you fly it by the hole and the ball just sticks. Here, you've got to plan for 20 to 50 yards of roll."
The no-driver strategy at Torrey Pines was abandoned on the weekend, but by then it was too late for Lefty. "We've made little changes, trying to find the right balance because developing a plan of attack and knowing all the idiosyncrasies of the golf course takes energy," Mickelson. "We've been working hard to create more of a balance so that my game is sharp heading into Thursday."
So what makes Pelz confident that Mickelson is finally ready to break through at the British Open? "Phil Mickelson has the best short game I have ever seen," Pelz said. "No question. He is very creative and has no fear. The launch angles he gets are just absurd. Earlier this year he was not putting well because he had been working on his swing with Butch Harmon, but now it's the best I've ever seen. I think he's got a great chance at the British Open."
Mickelson had gone 0 and 43 in the majors before he sent out an SOS to Pelz. The stubborn star, who had refused to change his gambling style, was finally facing up to reality.
"Phil is a very smart guy," Pelz said. "But he's still as stubborn as a rock. Greg Norman was like Phil. He could do incredible things. But if you gave him 10 chances he'd only do them six times. And that makes a lot of double bogeys.
"I remember asking Phil how he prepares for the majors. He said, 'Well, I take Monday off, Tuesday I play the course. Wednesday, I play nine holes.' I asked him why he never went in early to a course. He said because he knew the courses. I said: 'Do me a favor. Come early with me.' But he kept making excuses. So I finally said: 'How many majors have you won? You won zero of 43 doing it your way. Let's try it my way once.' And he said, 'OK, I can't argue with that.'"
So they went to Augusta two weeks before the 2004 Masters. Mickelson won, and that's been the game plan ever since. "I never got him to change his game or his personality," Pelz said. "But he is now more aware of the percentage chances of succeeding."
With Tiger Woods missing from Birkdale, Mickelson is the No.1 player in a major for the first time. But he and Pelz were quick to deny that Tiger's absence will have any effect on their gameplan. "You don't ask who was sick or whose hand hurt when Ben Hogan won his majors; it's not the measure of a man's career who did and didn't play," Pelz said. "The day Phil Mickelson starts driving it in the fairway, he's going to be the best player in the world," Pelz added.
Are you listening, Tiger?
Mickelson was asked if the imagination required to play links golf gives him an added sense of relish. "You got me on relish," Mickelson said, laughing. "I'm thinking of pickles."
Extra-special enjoyment, came the rephrased question. "It's so different from what we play day-in, day-out in the States," Mickelson continued, "it is something that I ... relish."