Phil Mickelson, at 46, will become the oldest golfer to win the Open since 1867 if he carries off the Claret Jug here. And there were a few moments on Friday when Scotland stopped trying to pretend it was Bermuda, when the rain cascaded over the links and the wind seemed keen to join the wrecking party that the American looked every one of his years.
His golf looked ready to swivel like a weather vane when the going got nasty at the halfway point of his second round. But even though his two‑under‑par 69 felt something of an anticlimax following his staggering 63 it was almost as worthy in the conditions and it gave him a pace-setting 10 under par with two rounds remaining.
“In San Diego we get three days a year like this – and we don’t play golf on those days,” the American said with a rueful grin.
Golfers, their hair and frowns hidden under sponsored caps, seem to age more slowly than many other sportsmen, and Mickelson, it seems, will have nothing more to do with the drab process. “From 10 years ago, when I was playing my best golf, I’m 25 pounds lighter, I’m in better shape and physically stronger than I was.”
The essence of his golf is his short game and his precision with irons. And though it is true to say his putting wobbled a while ago he has got it back in order too and has rarely looked fitter. In September, he fervently hopes, he will play his 11th Ryder Cup.
His driving may not have the outstanding power of Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson but he still hits a long ball off the tee compared with many. And, under the guidance of a new Australian coach Andrew Getson, and another coach Dave Pelz, he has flattened out his game.
“I’ve really worked on getting the ball on to the ground off the tee quickly, so the ground is affecting it more than the air. That low two iron that I hit takes a lot of stress away from my tee-shots.
“That led to me playing well in the elements today and hopefully in the winds we’ll have tomorrow. I’ve also worked to take a lot of spin off the ball with my short irons. I was able to control the spin on my wedges and flight it down lower.
“When I look back on my early career here, and not having success, I think a lot of it was to do with fighting the air too much, putting so much spin on the ball and trying to hit it way too hard.”
After three solid pars – he had a sniff of a birdie at the third – the five-times major winner birdied the 555-yard par‑five fourth to go nine under. He fancied an eagle but his average effort finished eight feet short. His second putt, though, was solid.
His second birdie came at the 7th, where he just missed a pot bunker but his shot of the day came at the Postage Stamp 8th. He pitched 10 feet from the flag and it spun back to within two inches of the hole. It would have been a magical hole in one on the par three and he looked almost as disappointed as he had been the previous evening, when he missed that record-breaking round of 62.
He must have been delighted with his three-under outward nine but the weather had already taken a turn for the worse and so, for a while, did Mickelson.
After getting his par on the first two holes of the return journey he dropped a shot on the par-four 12th. He had maintained par, or better, through 29 holes. Here he drove into the rough on the right and then had spectators on the left bobbing and weaving as he went into them with his second shot. He was left with a 25-footer to achieve par and he did not make it. Frustrated and extremely damp, he was seen exchanging words with a TV cameraman.
He retrieved this mishap with a birdie on the 14th but when he suffered another bogey on the 15th his round seemed in danger of unravelling. He held himself together for par through the final three holes and his bunker escape on the 17th, when he was cramped for room and face to face with what looked like a prison wall, was among his very best shots at this tournament, though he later suggested the dampness of the sand had made it easier. He not only got out but landed within four feet of the pin.
That was a “big momentum keeper”, he said. “I needed to keep par there. I made one or two bad swings that led to bogeys but for the most part I kept the ball in play and played stress‑free golf.”
His 36-hole total of 132 was, moreover, an Open record at Troon; beating by a shot the mark set by the American Bobby Clampett in 1982 and equalled by Darren Clarke in 1997.
He has won this event before, famously, at Muirfield in 2013, when he turned a five-stroke deficit into victory by three shots. “I don’t feel the pressure like a lot of the players because I’ve already won it,” he said. “But I would love to add to it.”
American golfers, remember, have won the last six Opens played at Troon.
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