ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Phil Mickelson loves this town — its history, its aura, its Starbucks. There was Lefty early this morning at the Market Street ‘bucks, a five-minute walk from the Old Course’s 18th green, ordering up a warm cup of Joe. In sneakers, jeans and a white Chargers cap, Mickelson looked like he was enjoying a lazy weekend at the beach, not hours from his first round tee time at the 139th Open Championship.
Just up the road his caddie, Bones Mackay, strolled out of the storied Dunvegan Hotel with a hop in his step. Bones was on his way into town, perhaps to meet his boss to watch a little golf on the telly, which is one of Phil’s favorite things to do during the Open. “When I have a late time, I’ll watch in the morning,” Mickelson said earlier this week. “When I have an early time, I’ll watch in the afternoon.”
Mickelson had a late tee time today — 2:20 p.m. — and if any of his competitors flipped on the BBC to watch the lefthander (how could they miss him in that shocking pink shirt?), they saw a golfer out of sorts. Granted, Mickelson and the late starters were at a disadvantage — the dead calm of the morning and early afternoon gave way to sporadic gusts and showers in the late afternoon — but Mickelson, as has been the case in so many Opens, did not resemble the world’s No. 2 ranked player.
He started his round with 13 straight pars — Old Man Par is the mission at U.S. Opens, not at a go-low-or-go-home day at the British Open when more than 30 players broke 70 and seven shot 6-under-par or better — and didn’t make a birdie until the home hole, where he nearly drove the green. That lone highlight, paired with a double-bogey at the 464-yard par-4 14th, left Mickelson with a 73 and so ticked off that he chose not to speak to the press following his round.
It’s too early to write off Mickelson, who sits 10 back of the leader Rory McIlroy, but to reposition himself in the mix Lefty will need a special round Friday at a championship that has yielded him few memorable moments. In 16 previous Opens, Mickelson has posted just 12 rounds in the 60s and broken par just 19 times. Compare that to Ernie Els, who in 19 Open appearances has carded 35 rounds in the 60s and 44 rounds under par. (Check that — 36 rounds in the 60s and 45 rounds under par in 20 appearances — Els shot 69 today.)
Mickelson played three practice rounds this week — unheard of for him, even during a major — though that was more because he adores the course than it was about any sort of Lombardi-like game plan. “If it were up to me, I would play this championship here every year,” Mickelson said Tuesday. “There something so special about St. Andrews. I just love playing it.”
It didn’t look it this afternoon as he trudged around the back nine under a mercurial sky whose mood changed by the minute. As Lefty played the 14th hole, the rains came — a steady downpour that lasted 15 minutes — and by the time he arrived on the 15th tee he appeared to be lagging, despondent even, as he munched on a bag of granola. At 17, his 190-yard approach looked promising until it trickled back into the swale in the front of the Road Hole green. Mickelson’s cheeks inflated before he exhaled in frustration.
Mickelson has had plenty to bemoan at this the oldest major. His Open woes earlier in his career weren’t hard to figure because Lefty hit the ball too high and with too much sauce, a damming combination for links golf. “Even when I would hit low shots I would have way too much spin on it,” he said this week. But in 2004, Mickelson claimed to have licked that problem with a simple solution: take more club, swing easier — a fix that Phil called an “epiphany.” Still, six years later, the revelation hasn’t paid many dividends: Mickelson placed third at the Troon Open in ’04, but hasn’t notched another top-15 finish at an Open since then.
At St. Andrews in 2005, Mickelson opened with a 74 and closed with a 76 to finish tied for 60th, which is particularly hard to comprehend. The Old Course is not especially penal off the tee; it’s a “second-shot course,” many players have said this week — in other words, Mickelson’s forte. Yet Phil has never looked comfortable at St. Andrews, and today was no exception.
Most unfortunate for Mickelson is that this is a course on which he so desperately wants to win. “Nicklaus has said it, that a career just doesn’t feel complete unless you’ve won here at St. Andrews,” Mickelson said. “How can you not feel that way as a player?” After 18 holes, it seems unlikely that this will be Lefty’s week of fulfillment, though a high-energy, birdie-filled second round could go a long way toward reviving his hopes.
Which means if his Friday begins with another early-morning Starbucks run, he ought to order an extra shot or two in his espresso.