Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Open: Phil Mickelson's confidence is a sign of the times

Americans no longer afraid to tackle links challenge as Mickelson eyes further glory

Top booking: Phil Mickelson delights fans at Hoylake by stopping to give his autograph
Phil Mickelson

Liverpool gave America the Beatles and, in return, Arnold Palmer saved The Open.

If it weren't for Arnie, the king of golf, it is certain this 143rd Open Championship would not be playing to a television audience of hundreds of millions with an estimated 200,000 spectators expected to tramp across this Royal Liverpool links by Sunday evening.

 

When Palmer turned up for the 89th Open at St Andrews in 1960, the Fab Four were just beginning their quest to make the Cavern twist and shout.

The Open was a low-key parochial event and Arnie was the only golfer, the Fab One, from the land that gave the world rock 'n' roll, to compete over the Old Course.

A year earlier, there were no Americans at all.

Part of the reason was the distance to travel and no one had private jets in those days.

The other dampener was, as ever, money.

First prize back then for the "British" Open, as Americans call it, was £1,000 versus £8,000 for the US Open.

Palmer didn't win in 1960 but the coolest dude ever to swing a golf club until Seve Ballesteros came along had made the oldest championship cool, too.

When he won the next two contests at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon, he had convinced his fellow countrymen to make the annual pilgrimage across the Atlantic.

The Open was saved and is now big bucks.

The champion golfer of the year, as the winner is called, will bank a cool £975,000 this year. He should send Palmer a cut.

Palmer was inspired by stories of Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones in the 1920s and 1930s.

Teeing up today there are 57 Americans in the field of 156.

Without Palmer there would not have been 28 American champions (there are nine here this week) whose number includes some of the game's greatest and most flamboyant players: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Johnny Miller, John Daly, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

If the myth that Americans cannot play links golf was not laid to rest by that list of the auld game's royalty, then how about a hat-trick of freak winners from 2003: Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton and Stewart Cink, anyone?

The defending champion Mickelson has three Masters green jackets and a US PGA Championship on his CV but knew his career would not be complete without a Claret Jug.

It took the 44-year-old 20 attempts with only two top-three finishes to crack the links conundrum with victory at Muirfield last year.

"What made The Open so emotional for me were the challenges I had to overcome to accomplish that victory," he said this week.

"Challenges of learning links golf over the course of my career, coming over here only a couple of weeks a year.

"Not having grown up here, I had to learn it during my professional years.

"It was an obstacle to overcome and that's why it brought out so much emotion in me."

Now that he has unlocked the door to the mysterious world of bump-and-run golf played in the wind and rain, he fancies another run at glory.

"The memories and emotions that took place last year I will have for a lifetime," he said.

"I'd like to do it again. Now I know I can."

Handing back the Claret Jug earlier this week was another emotional moment for Mickelson.

He didn't quite take it on the year-long pub crawl that Darren Clarke did after 2011 but there were still tales of drunken debauchery to tell.

Well, sipping a £23,000 bottle of 1990 Romanée-Conti from the sacred silver trophy rather than pints of Guinness.

"I didn't know what it was when I drank it," Mickelson said.

"I just knew that it was really good.

"That was the best bottle that was ever put in there.

"One of the things I stressed is that we have to treat the Claret Jug with the respect it deserves and only put good stuff in it.

"It's been fun to see the faces of people able to take a picture with it or take a drink out of it."

While Mickelson tees off in the afternoon wave along with Ernie Els and reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson, Woods sets off in the hope of repeating his last Open victory, which came over these very links in 2006.

He has Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson for company.

"My life has certainly changed a lot since then," Woods said.

"The people are fantastic. I was going through a pretty tough time in my life at the time (his father had recently died) and people were very supportive."

Woods won his 14th major title at the 2008 US Open but has been stuck four short of Nicklaus's record ever since in a career blighted by injuries and a private life shamed by a now famous sex scandal.

But Tiger is golf's John, Paul, George and Ringo rolled into one.

He's the only player that spectators scream and shout at as he plays.

US broadcaster ESPN has even launched a special channel to follow Tiger's every step and shot this week.

Tigermania is back – if it ever went away.

If the 38-year-old is looking for a good omen, Nicklaus won his 15th major at The Open aged, you guessed it, 38.

While Woods and Mickelson lead the American challenge, look out for Jordan Spieth, who is fast becoming American golf's new poster boy.

The 20-year-old Texan joined Woods as the only players to win multiple junior US Amateur titles and he has already won on the US Tour.

He also led the Masters on the final day in April before being pipped by Watson.

If a big heart is required to win The Open, check out Erik Compton from Miami.

He has had two heart transplants so just being here is a victory for life, not just the trivial pursuit of sporting achievement.

And leading the way for the Stars and Stripes, in the very first group designated to tee off at the ungodly hour of 6.25am this morning, is the 2001 Open champion David Duval. Remember him?

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