Friday, June 17, 2011

Phil Mickelson

It is one of golf's more instructive truisms: scoring well when playing well is relatively easy, but the ability to post a reasonable number when swinging poorly is the mark of a proper player. And rarely have both sides of that age-old adage been more ably demonstrated than at Congressional on the opening two days of this 111th US Open. As Rory McIlroy eased his carefree way to the head of the field the Northern Irishman's partner, Phil Mickelson, was hacking, slashing and gouging his way through 36 holes of golf that was, if nothing else, an education to watch.
"Phil struggled with his swing and his game but he kept himself in it with great saves," said McIlroy after watching Mickelson shoot an adventurous three-over 74 on the opening day. "It looked like he could have let the round get away from him at one point, but he always finds a way to make a score."
In so many ways, Mickelson's performance so far at an event in which he has five times been a runner-up could double as a teaching manual for all players. Wild off the tee – he has missed 13 fairways over the opening two rounds, by margins ranging from wide to very wide – and not much better with his irons, the 41-year old American has nevertheless contrived to keep himself in vague contention for the title that surely means more to him than any other.
"This actually turned out to be a great day because I played horrific," was his brutally honest and completely accurate description of that opening 74 in which he found only five fairways and eight greens in regulation (in contrast, McIlroy hit four more fairways and, most significantly, nine more greens).
"To hit it where I did today and walk away with three-over parwas a huge relief. It was a little bit of everything but to be able to shoot what I did from where I did, I'll gladly take it. I could easily have shot in the 80s."
Perhaps just as importantly, Mickelson's experienced head will know he is far from out of contention for what would be a fifth major championship victory.
"I don't normally play four days perfectly so this was my bad round," he continued. "Since my first real opportunity to win this event back in 1999 I've figured out how to manage myself around, control my misses and salvage pars the hard way. At the Masters the thought process is to hit the ball as hard as possible on every tee; here it is all about minimising the miss. Hopefully I'll get it turned around tomorrow."
Which he did, albeit again in the shadow of his gifted young companion. As the seemingly unstoppable McIlroy made it to four-under par through eight holes of his second round – 10-under for the championship – Mickelson had somehow managed three birdies of his own to wipe out his deficit versus par from the previous day. Although he was still missing fairways, he was at least finding more greens.
Mickelson, of course, has been around long enough to know that a major championship – especially a US Open – calls for patience and savvy. His pre-tournament press conference was a brilliant example of the latter.
On a course redesigned by the so-called "Open doctor" Rees Jones – Mickelson's least favourite architect and one he has regularly criticised – the game's best-ever left-hander put on a masterclass in the art of tongue-in-cheek diplomacy, backhanded compliments his speciality.
"What I like most about this course is that the hard holes are really hard and the easy holes are fairly easy," he claimed with a smile.
"I love making hard holes harder because a good player has an opportunity to make up ground with pars. And on the easy holes a top player has a chance to make up ground with birdies. It's a matter of picking your spots, trying to make pars on the really hard holes and seeing if you can make a few birdies here and there throughout the round. I feel pretty comfortable with the way I'm going to play each hole."
That level of contentment did eventually translate into a more orthodox mode of play from Mickelson over the closing holes. A hardly disastrous bogey at the impossibly difficult 11th was more than cancelled out by a birdie from 30ft at the 14th, then another at the par-five 16th, although he found water at the 18th like McIlroy, and both double-bogeyed it.
Such figures did little or nothing to affect the gap between "Lefty" and the runaway leader. A 12-shot deficit may seem like a lot to make up – and it is – but US Opens are typically unpredictable beasts where, according to another well-worn golfing aphorism, strange things are always liable to happen– and often do.

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