Willingness to adapt makes all the difference
Patience has proved a virtue at the Open for Phil Mickelson, says Dermot Gilleece
While contemplating retirement from tournament play about 20 years ago, Arnold Palmer remarked as a two-time former champion: "I never felt I could be a complete professional without having won the British Open". This was the deep conviction which fired Phil Mickelson towards a stunning success at Muirfield last weekend.
As it happened, both of these American icons from different generations had their first competitive experience of links terrain at Portmarnock. For Palmer, it was in the Canada Cup of 1960, a week before his debut in the Centenary Open Championship at St Andrews. And Mickelson came to the celebrated North Dublin links from practice sessions at Lahinch, as the outstanding player in the 1991 US Walker Cup team.
Whatever the circumstance, there is generally a parallel in golf. Like Lee Westwood's explanation for his latest failure from within touching distance of a Major title, this time with a three-stroke lead on the final day. "The shots dropped [in a closing round of 75] really were down to operator errors – not mental errors," said the only player in history to have finished in the top-three in each of the game's four Majors without winning one.
When Greg Norman had recovered sufficiently from his historic collapse against Nick Faldo in the 1996 US Masters, he reflected: "You see, what happened at Augusta was physical – it wasn't mental. I can honestly tell you that." Competitive well-being demands that players engage in such self-delusion, while we draw our own conclusions.
A perfect reminder of an enthralling weekend at Muirfield came to me last week when I took out a pair of sports shoes I had worn there. They were still liberally covered in brown dust from excursions across dry, fiery terrain which had all the key characteristics of classic links. This was the real McCoy, a vastly different golfing environment from the lush fairways and perfectly-rolling greens of the American tour where Mickelson learned his craft.
Back in 1991, Lee Trevino finished 49th in the last of 20 appearances in the US Masters. On the same occasion, Mickelson was making his Masters debut as a reward for winning the US Amateur Championship the previous year. Still a member of the Arizona State University golf team at the time, he embraced the special challenge of Augusta with uncommon verve, to the extent that he was tied 46th while collecting a pair of crystal goblets for an eagle on the long 13th.
Trevino never liked the place. Having grown up on public courses in Texas, everything about it left him ill at ease. He made his first appearance there in 1968 and, on his return the following year, remarked bitterly: "Don't talk to me about the Masters. I'm never going to play there again. They can invite me all they want, but I'm not going back. It's just not my type of course."
So it was that at the peak of his powers, he opted out of the Masters in 1970 and 1971 and again in 1974, despite being invited to play. It was only through the intervention of Jack Nicklaus that he returned eventually on a regular basis but even then he refused to use the locker-room, preferring to change into his spikes in the car park. Though he insisted that all of this stemmed from a belief that his low fade shot-shape would never allow him challenge successfully for a green jacket, he simply couldn't accept the club's overt elitism. As a consequence, his best finish was 10th, which he did on only two occasions, in 1975 and 1985.
One of the greatest players of his time, a rival hugely admired by Nicklaus, effectively ruled himself out of the season's first Major. Significantly, he was twice a winner of each of the other three – the US Open, Open Championship and the PGA – giving him six Major titles in all.
Over a 23-year period starting with his debut as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1991, Mickelson has made 20 appearances in the Open Championship. Out of these, he has finished only three times in the top 10, all of them relatively recently and including the interesting progression of third at Royal Troon in 2004, tied second behind Darren Clarke at Royal St George's in 2011, and victory last Sunday.
It is a safe bet that quite a few of his American brethren would prefer to have been thousands of miles away from Muirfield, possibly in the comfort of their own homes last weekend. They were there simply because their prominence in the game required them to be, possibly through commercial commitments.
With his high ball-flight and long, looping backswing, Mickelson was honest enough to admit that he was close to being a fully paid-up member of such a group at one point in his career. As he said in those precious moments in the immediate aftermath of last Sunday's victory: "I never knew I'd be able to win this tournament".
If prompted, he would have readily recalled a trying two days at Royal Birkdale in 1998 – the year of Mark O'Meara's triumph – when he carded horrendous rounds of 85 and 78. Nor would there have been any difficulty in recollecting the infamous Saturday at Muirfield in 2002, when he slumped to a 76. Nor an opening 79 at Birkdale five years ago, after he had helped the prospective champion, Pádraig Harrington, repair damage to a suspect arm with a special laser appliance which he had in his hotel bedroom on the eve of battle. Then came the spirited challenge at Royal St George's in 2011, when a closing 68 still wasn't good enough to overhaul the rampant Clarke.
Crucially through all of that, Mickelson never lost the willingness to adapt to the special requirements of links terrain, through a lower ball-flight and greater accuracy off the tee. Yet on this particular occasion, it so happened that a high ball-flight was a decided advantage in controlling approach shots to Muirfield's firm, treacherous greens. So, when the time comes to compare the great ones of this and previous generations, there will be an obvious distinguishing mark between himself and Trevino.
Directly following his triumph at Castle Stuart, Mickelson's two-week Scottish haul of £1.445m in prize money has had interesting consequences from a tax perspective. According to Forbes, 45 per cent of the sum will go to HM Revenue. He will then have to pay 13.3 per cent in state tax in California, along with 2.9 per cent self-employment tax and 0.9 per cent Medicare surtax. All of which works out as a deduction of 61 per cent, which comes to the tidy sum of £881,450.
Meanwhile, at the beginning of Open week, you would have got serious odds about Clarke finishing as leading Irishman, especially against the background of four missed cuts in his previous four tournaments. Yet it was a challenge perfectly suited to this gifted craftsman, and he clearly welcomed not having to engage in a putting competition he couldn't win.
With Shane Lowry complaining about the difficulty of the greens and Graeme McDowell critical of what he described as unfair bunkering, their challenges were undermined by their own negativity. Ironically, Harrington was enthralled by the course but unfortunately didn't have the game to match his aspirations. In fact, it is a long time since I've seen him so dispirited.
In July 2001, before he headed for Royal Lytham and a share of 30th place behind David Duval, Mickelson was at Lahinch with family and friends. There were seven of them and before the player, caddie Jim 'Bones' McKay, his father Phil Snr and Mark Calcavecchia teed off in a fourball, the club made a point of having the new, short eighth hole in play so that Mickelson would be the first to hit a shot to it.
So it was that after consulting a range-finder, he found the heart of the green with a seven-iron shot of 173 yards. Then, on returning to the clubhouse, an overdue ceremony took place in which Mickelson was presented with a club blazer as an honorary life overseas member. And when a congratulatory letter later went from the Lahinch secretary/manager to mark his 2004 US Masters triumph, it brought this prompt, handwritten response: "Amy and I are very grateful for friends like you . . . Let's hope the next Major win will come a little sooner than this one did!"
Indeed it did: victory in the PGA Championship at Baltusrol came 16 months later. And though they lost another revered overseas member earlier this year with the passing of the 1964 US Open champion, Ken Venturi, the famous Co Clare links can now celebrate what might be described as 'The Lahinch Slam'. That's the four Major titles won by Mickelson and Venturi.