Commentary

Claret Jug within Phil Mickelson's reach

Originally Published: July 15, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SANDWICH, England -- Things you rarely see in this country:

Sunscreen.

Ice cubes spilling over a glass.

Phil Mickelson on an Open Championship leaderboard.

Links golf and Lefty don't get along very well, especially in England and especially at the Open Championship. If it were a marriage, they'd be in permanent couples counseling.

Mickelson has played in 17 previous Opens and never won. He has had only one top-10 finish, and that was seven years ago. And on Open Championship courses in England, he has gone T-73, T-40, T-79, T-30, T-59, T-22 and T-19.

But after two rounds at Royal St. George's, which is as English as Spitfires and Beckham, Mickelson is, gasp, in contention. He begins Saturday only 3 shots out of the lead -- semi-amazing if you saw the way he explored the far reaches of this course in the first round.

Then came Friday and new Phil arrived.

"I will say this," said his longtime caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, "today's round … from a ball-striking standpoint, was one of the very best rounds I've ever seen him have. Ever seen."

Mickelson shot even-par 70 on Thursday, a 1-under-par 69 on Friday. Big deal, right?

Except that the two rounds reflected Mickelson's supposed radical approach to this major. In short, he said he's pretending this is his first-ever Open Championship. So far, the golf amnesia is working.

"I just wanted to start fresh because I've loved links golf," Mickelson said. "I just had to really enjoy the challenge of it more. … I just think this is really a fun way to play golf, and I wanted to have kind of a fresh start."

Wait, what did he say? That he loved links golf? If he does, it doesn't love him back.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
AP Photo/Tim HalesPhil Mickelson shot 70-69 and is in search of his first top-10 at a British Open since 2004.

In his previous five Open Championships, he is a combined 17 over par and has nothing better than that T-19. The best he has ever done after 36 holes is a T-6 in 2000 at St. Andrews. And if you add all his strokes in those 17 Opens, he's 85 shots over par.

To this, Mickelson says, "Who cares?" Those other Opens never existed. He's in the Now. This is 2011 Phil, nothing else.

"I just saw a stat that I've only been in contention a few times heading into the weekend, and this is really a fun tournament," he said. "So to have a chance to be right in it, it's exciting."

OK, so he isn't totally in the Now. But can you blame him? This is sunscreen territory for him, ice cubes galore. This is a Phil Bites St. George's headline.

To be fair, Mickelson has had a few things on his mind the past three years. His wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, have dealt with the Big C, which means Mickelson has dealt with it, too. Golf didn't just take a backseat, it got stuck in the car trunk.

He wouldn't say this, of course. Mickelson almost never talks specifically about the cancer and the treatments his wife and mom have endured. But it's safe to say there's been a trickle-down effect on his ability to concentrate on his game.

Then again, Mickelson hadn't done that well before those illnesses were diagnosed, or after. Theories are numerous: Phil's "American" game doesn't translate over here. Translation: He hits it too high. Or Phil overthinks everything. Or Phil's swing had become too mechanical.

"Some of the shots we hit here we'll never have to hit in the States: a driver that carries 180, 200 [yards], just get it on the ground and get it running. We don't really have that need for the shot over in the States."

But he has the need for it here. A Friday morning session on the range with swing coach Butch Harmon made a difference in Mickelson's day. So has his patience.

"I think he puts too much pressure on himself to push to do better," Harmon said. "I wanted him just to relax and play golf, see the shots he tries to hit and hit them. Don't get ahead and say 'I should birdie this hole or that hole.' Stay in the moment. You have as good an imagination as anybody. Use it."

Mickelson didn't play well Thursday. That 70 could have been a 75, easy.

"He did what he does," Bones said, "he fought his [butt] off and got the ball up and down. Then he came out today and just striped it."

Just think if he could have canned a putt or two. He missed an 18-incher Thursday and a 5-footer for eagle and a 3-footer for birdie Friday. His putting has mostly been in triage for months.

"He's only, what, 3 off the lead," said playing partner and defending Open champion Louis Oosthuizen. "So you can see him shooting a nice, low number out there."

Someone asked, "Can you see him winning this thing?"

"With the leaderboard now, there are probably 30 golfers who could win it, so it's all going to be about [Saturday]."

That's fine with Mickelson, who is just glad to be in the weekend discussion. He's even fine with the rain and wind that supposedly is set to arrive for Round 3.

"One of the things I'm looking forward to is actually the bad weather," Mickelson said. "I hope that it comes and that we get faced with that."

New Phil likes crummy weather. He likes English courses. Soon he'll want to discuss cricket.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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