If Phil Mickelson looks like he’s having the time of his life this week, it’s because he is.
“I just love coming to St. Andrews,” Mickelson said at a media conference on Tuesday prior to the 150th anniversary of the British Open. “This is my third practice round — I don’t play that many practice rounds in a major, but I just love being on the golf course at St. Andrews and playing it. I’m excited about the championship. I can’t wait for Thursday.”
You could see Mickelson’s excitement on Monday during his rollicking practice round with Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson. The younger players repeated Costantino Rocco’s famous putt from the Valley of Sin on 18 for a second-place playoff; Mickelson won comfortably. You saw it again Tuesday, as Mickelson played another practice round with Johnson, this time joining Ben An and Nick Faldo, whom Mickelson pumped for information about how to win on the course.
“I had a chance to play with Nick today, and I asked him a bunch of questions because he’s got a lot of great thoughts on St. Andrews, and avoiding bunkers, and shots into greens, and what allowed him to win and be so dominant in 1990,” Mickelson said. “He played some of the best golf you’ve ever seen there.”
Such enthusiasm might appear misplaced considering the British Open has always been the toughest major for Mickelson. While he’s known for his heart-breaking U.S. Open misses, Mickelson almost always plays well at his national championship. Across the Atlantic is another story. His third-place finish in 2004 at Royal Troon is his only top 10 at the tournament. He hasn’t repeated that success, but Mickelson said he figured out how to play in the wind at Troon.
“It wasn’t until 2004 that I started playing the wind effectively,” Mickelson said. “Even when I would hit low shots, I would have way too much spin on it. It wasn’t until 2004 that I had a kind of epiphany of how to do that by taking more club and swinging easier.”
That’s one reason he feels good about this week. Another is that he’s added some loft to his putter to combat the thicker-grained grass. But mostly he’s just caught up in the magic of St. Andrews, like everyone else here this week.
“As somebody who loved the game of golf, you can’t help but feel the emotion and feel this sense of spirituality come over you as you play this course, knowing this is where the game began,” Mickelson said.
But beyond its metaphysical properties, St. Andrews is also a great venue for Mickelson because it’s driver-friendly. The last three winners (Tiger Woods in 2005 and 2000, and John Daly in 1995) were the longest players in the game at that time, Mickelson noted.
“There’s no question this one best suits my game because there’s so much more room off the tee than other Open venues,” Mickelson said. “[Compared to] Royal Birkdale, where you’re constantly hitting irons trying to miss the rough, there’s plenty off room out there. I don’t feel restrained off the tee at all.
“It’s more a second-shot golf course,” he continued. “It also allows short game to be a factor.”
Mickelson’s brought his good humor from the course to the press room. Egged on by a reporter, he finally admitted that overtaking Tiger Woods as the world’s No. 1 player — which he could do with a win here — would be a big deal for him.
“I think it would be something that if I were to accomplish in my career, and I have some chances here, it would be something,” said Mickelson, who has never been ranked No. 1. “Whether it was one week or a month or a year, however long, just to be able to say you did it, especially in Tiger’s era, it would be incredible.”
He’s downplayed his quest for No. 1, he said, because the ranking is the result of playing well over an extended period of time. It’s not something you can focus on in the same way as winning a tournament.
“I’ve got to play well and play well enough to achieve that,” Mickelson said. “I don’t have a problem putting it on me this week. I expect to play well here. I really do. I expect to be in contention.”
Compared to the post-scandal Law & Order-type interrogations that Woods’s media conferences have become, Mickelson sounded like he was holding court at the nearby Dunvegan Pub on Tuesday afternoon, especially when he was asked about Ian Poulter, who questioned whether Mickelson was hungry enough to win another major.
“April went well,” the Masters champion deadpanned.