THIS week Phil Mickelson will have a noticeable spring in his step. For it’s here on the banks of the Moray Firth at Castle Stuart that he finally solved the riddle of the links to claim his first title on Scottish soil, at the 2013 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
It proved to be the springboard for one of his greatest victories, as the following week he went on to win The Open at Muirfield with one of the most impressive rounds of golf he has ever produced.
“I’m always excited about returning to Scotland, and particularly to Castle Stuart this year,” said Mickelson. “I believe winning here in 2013 was key to my success the week after at The Open Championship.Beyond that, Scotland is the Home of Golf and I really appreciate the fans’ golfing knowledge and their respect for the game. It’s always one of the highlights of my year when I compete in Scotland.” said the five-time Major champion.
Mickelson had never won in the British Isles prior to 2013. His only win on European soil had come back in 1993 at the European Challenge Tour event at Euro Disney near Paris.
He had come close, losing out in a play-off to Grégory Havret at Loch Lomond in 2007 and finishing runner-up to Darren Clarke at The Open at Royal St Georges in 2011, before finally securing victory with a play-off win over South African Branden Grace here in Inverness.
It was the last time the event was held at Castle Stuart, with stops at Royal Aberdeen and Gullane GC on Scotland’s Golf Coast in the last two years before returning to the Highlands this week.
“I love these two tournaments,” beamed Mickelson. “In 2013 they were arguably two of the most memorable events of my career. Having my family with me, spending the two weeks in Scotland and winning back-to-back was something I’ll always cherish.
“Walking up the 18th hole at Muirfield, knowing I had the tournament in my grasp really was the greatest feeling, just to be able to take advantage of that moment and not have to grind it out but really enjoy the walk. I’ll always remember that. It’s a very special memory for me.”
Mickelson’s first experience of links golf came back in 1991 as a member of the US Walker Cup team at Portmarnock in Ireland, and he left commentators bemused by favouring to play the aggressive flop shots he has since become famous for when he missed the greens.
His tactics that week worked, as he won three points from four, including both his singles matches, to help the US team to a convincing 14-10 victory.
“I really enjoyed links golf when I first played at the Walker Cup in Ireland,” said Mickelson. “It was a wonderful test. I played well. But the conditions and the penalty for missed shots in The Open Championship are much more severe than when we played the Walker Cup.
“It took me a while to figure it out. It’s just so different to what I grew up playing and what I play on the US PGA Tour. I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win on a links course.
“Looking back, the turnaround came in December of 2003, just before the 2004 season when I started working with Dave Pelz on hitting wedge shots without spin and controlling the distances. The work that we did carried over into my short irons, middle irons and, ultimately, my long game.
“The key to playing links golf from tee to green is being able to get the ball not just low, but low without spin. That’s what I was struggling with and why I was always fighting it. I would swing hard and that would put more spin on it and the wind would have a greater effect on the ball. Now, having learned how to take more club, I can swing it easier and just let it feel like I’m hitting little halfshots. I’m not fighting it, because I’m not having to make full, hard aggressive swings. It’s much easier if you’re aiming for a 100-yard pin to hit a little 5-iron than it is to hit a full wedge. That was really the turning point I look back on.”
While finding the knack of playing links golf took time, Mickelson’s career had been littered with Stateside success right from the word go. He won his first US PGA Tour title as a 20-year-old Amateur in Tucson in 1991 and he’s been a regular winner ever since. He has not missed a Ryder Cup since qualifying for his first appearance at Oak Hill in 1995 and in the prevailing years he won three editions of the Masters Tournament (2004, 2006, 2010), the US PGA Championship (2005) and his victory at Muirfield means he needs only the U.S. Open to complete the Grand Slam.
Now aged 46, Mickelson is held in the highest regard by golf fans around the world, and he has secured his status among the game’s greats. His 42 US PGA Tour victories place him ninth on the all-time winner’s list, but he treasures his last win at The Open three years ago.
That long wait for a victory has led Mickelson to seek new swing advice, ending his long-term relationship with coach Butch Harmon late last year to switch to the tutelage of Andrew Getson.
So far this year Mickelson has knocked on the door numerous times, with five top-five finishes on the US PGA Tour, including runner-up at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“I’ve had a good year but it’s been an inconsistent year,” said Mickelson prior to a tie for 20th at The Memorial Tournament in Ohio last month.
“I’ve had some really good finishes and I’ve had some poor finishes. I hate to repeat this because I’ve been saying it for a while, but I do think I’m close to a win.I feel like I’m playing some good golf but I don’t want to put that pressure on myself to have that expectation. You go out with the idea of trying to win a tournament and that can be the kiss of death because you’re dealing with expectations rather than concentrating on hitting shots and playing the round.”
With that in mind, being among the friendly, familiar surroundings of Castle Stuart could be just the tonic for the fans’ favourite to get back to winning ways.