The Open: Phil Mickelson is in good spirits despite a slow start
I'm not as far away from top form as you think, insists 2013 champion
Defending Open champion Phil Mickelson is confident his game is only a fraction away from being back to the level it was when he won at Muirfield 12 months ago. The five-time Major winner has not had a victory since lifting the Claret Jug for the first time in Scotland last year.
This is only the third year since 1993 he has arrived at The Open without a victory, having also done so in 1999 and 2003.
But Mickelson remains as positive as ever that he is on the verge of turning a corner despite a first-round 74 at Royal Liverpool, eight shots off the lead, and an indifferent short game which is usually his strength.
"This is the best I've hit it in over a year," he stressed.
"I had as much control over the golf ball as I've had in a long time. Whether it was working cuts into the wind, draws into the wind, shots off the tee.
"Certainly the score sucks but my game is as good as it's been in a long time.
"I've felt like it's just been a fraction off. I've been saying it's a fraction off for a while now and I feel now I found that last fraction – it's started to click.
"In 2004 at Troon I shot 74 the first day in pretty benign conditions, came out the next day and shot 66 and got right back in it.
"I feel like I'm more on that side of the equation than having another round over par because I just think the way I'm starting to hit it."
Mickelson had just two birdies – at the ninth and 10th – but bogeyed the seventh, 13th and 14th before hitting his approach to the par-five last out of bounds and taking a bogey six.
He admits that returning as defending champion means no-one now doubts his ability to perform in the world's oldest Major, in which he had just two top-10 finishes in his previous 13 attempts before last year.
"Coming into the Open Championship as a past champion the questions were totally different than they've been before," he said.
"The question 'Are you going to be able to come on top in links golf and overcome the challenge?' has already been answered.
"Now it's 'Can I do it again? Can I get in position again?' I know that this wasn't a great score, a great start, but this is as encouraged as I've been since last year's Open.
"I hit a lot of tremendous shots and even though the score is not reflective of it I can feel it's about to turn.
"Maybe tomorrow. It could be a week, it could be a month, but it's going to happen soon."
Meanwhile Masters champion Bubba Watson complained about the number of people following his group inside the ropes but admitted he had only himself to blame for a four-over round of 76 at the 143rd Open Championship.
After hitting his approach to the 394-yard 11th, the left-hander was heard on television saying: "There's just a thousand people in this fairway, all I want to do is play golf, that's all I want to do."
Up to that point the 35-year-old had kept his game in check, having played the first 10 holes in one-under, but afterwards he had a triple bogey seven at 11 and dropped three further shots with only one birdie as he came home in 42.
"It was good for 10 holes. I lost focus on 11: it was a short hole, middle of the fairway, I just forgot what I was doing," said the American.
"I asked my caddie about four times what the distance was and I never got comfortable over the shot.
"A lot of stuff was happening in the background but it was my fault.
"There was about 40 people in our fairway, inside the ropes with cameramen, and I don't know, some other people and a bunch of other people.
"It makes it tough for me because I lose focus real fast. But there was no phone problem, no fan problem.
"Nobody else was having that problem, it was just me, and I just let it go on that one hole and it cost me dearly."
Playing partner Phil Mickelson was asked whether he thought there were too many people inside the ropes.
"It's not a problem, it's just a different culture than what we're used to. That's all," he said.