SANDWICH, England — One thing doesn’t change as you go from major championship to major championship, no matter which side of the Atlantic Ocean you’re on, no matter whether you spell favorite with or without the letter “u.”
Phil Mickelson is still going to be Phil Mickelson. In other words, he’s going to shoot at pins and go for broke and play aggressive golf and never, or almost never, lay up, at least not as long as he’s got a chance to win.
That’s where he was Saturday when he came to the Open’s final hole. Forget his track record in the wind or his lack of success at the British Open (17 starts, one top-10 finish) or his poor form since April when he won in Houston. Mickelson, 41, is alive and kicking at Royal St. George’s. Yes, he still has a chance to win the Open. He’s tied for seventh at even par, five shots behind leader Darren Clarke.
So Mickelson came to the final hole the way he comes to most golf holes, looking for birdie. This one would’ve meant a little more because, with the end in sight, every birdie is another step closer to the lead. It would’ve felt like a dose of vindication since he’d slogged through a tough day of wind and rain early and put together a pretty solid round. He was just one over par despite missing two short putts, the main blemishes on his card.
The pin was near the back of the 18th green. It’s not the hardest finishing hole in the Open rota, but at 459 yards, it’s anything but easy. Anders Hansen, for instance, double-bogeyed it to drop back to even par for the tournament.
The 18th is never a bargain, and it was playing into a crossing southwesterly breeze on Saturday. A gravel path runs a few steps behind the green, with a hanging-chain fence beyond it held up by wooden posts, which mark the area as out of bounds. Earlier on Saturday, the tournament’s boy wonder, English amateur Tom Lewis, hit a long approach shot that was saved from O.B. only because it struck one of the posts and caromed back onto the path.
Phil knew all this, of course. He also knew he needed a birdie. Or wanted a birdie, if there’s a difference.
“I wanted to get one back there,” Mickelson admitted. “I thought, gosh, it’d be like a moral victory to shoot even par on a day like this. So I got a little greedy. I knew that where the pin was, it wasn’t a hard shot as long as it didn’t go out of bounds. I know O.B. isn’t that far away.”
Normally, Mickelson said, he would’ve played a 7-iron shot and taken the safe 25- or 30-foot putt for birdie from the middle of the green. Feeling greedy or feeling needy, he hit the 6-iron.
“I got it going with the wind a little too much and it went long,” Mickelson said.
So his ball finished just over the back right portion of the green. He left his ensuing chip shot four feet short but made the par putt. That gave him a 71, not the 70 he would have preferred, but it kept him in the thick of contention and on the first page of the leaderboard.
There have been plenty of surprises at the Open, but Mickelson being in the mix going to Sunday is one of the big ones, and probably one of the better ones. Mickelson is tied with Anthony Kim, Davis Love and Martin Kaymer, among others. Only five players and five strokes stand between Mickelson and leader Darren Clarke.
Of the players ahead of Mickelson — Miguel Angel Jimenez, Lucas Glover, Rickie Fowler, Thomas Bjorn, Dustin Johnson and Darren Clarke — only Glover has won a major championship. Mickelson has a chance, and he knows it.
“I’m very excited,” he said, and his smile seemed to back it up. “There’s nothing more exciting than having a chance Sunday in a major. I know that I’m not leading, but I’m right there.
“I’ve got to do something really good tomorrow. I’m so excited. It’s fun to come over here and have a chance.”
It has seemed like Mickelson has been trying to work up Tom Watson-like positive vibes about playing in the Open this week. After Friday’s round, he knew all about the grim weekend weather forecast. “One of the things I’m looking forward to, actually, is the bad weather,” Mickelson said. “I hope that it comes in and we get faced with that.”
That’s a new-look Phil, who is known for his high-ball trajectory and reliance on 60- or 64-degree sand wedges. He did, indeed, move up on Saturday despite tough conditions, but he also got a break. The wind and rain hit hardest in the morning and let up for the later tee times. By the time Mickelson finished his round, a big patch of blue sky approached and the sun was about to come out.
“The guys who played late got really lucky, myself included, with the rain,” he said. “It quit right around the turn for me. We went from playing for pars to playing for birdies coming in.”
Sunday’s forecast calls for more rain and wind, but the weather here is always anybody’s guess, just like the outcome of this unpredictable Open. Mickelson says he’s ready for anything.
“You’ve got to have fun and accept that making pars is a tough task,” he said.
He was smiling, and he looked like he meant it.