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Mickelson's Adaptive Attitude

The belief that he could win at links golf and an ability to adapt his game were crucial for Mickelson

Posted Jul 22, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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Over a 24-year period from 1968 to 1991, Lee Trevino made 20 appearances in the  US Masters.  Out of those, he survived 17 cuts but his two best finishes were a relatively modest 10th in 1975 and again in 1985.

Over a 23-year period starting with his debut as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1991, Phil Mickelson has made 20 appearances in the Open Championship.  Out of those, he made the top-10 only three times, but they happened to include the fascinating progression of a third-place finish at Royal Troon in 2004, tied second behind Darren Clarke at Royal St George’s in 2011, and victory at Muirfield last Sunday.  

Both of these men would be rated among the game’s truly great players, Trevino with his six Major titles and Mickelson with five, courtesy of his latest triumph.  So, why should we compare their performances in specific Majors?  The answer has to do with attitude.

From the outset, Trevino believed that the Masters was beyond his reach.  Apart from the fact that, by his own admission, he never felt comfortable among the green-jacketed elite of Augusta National, he convinced himself that he would never be able to conquer their course, because of his natural, low ball-flight.  This, despite having managed to card a best round of 67 there.

So, a man admired by Jack Nicklaus as an opponent with a talent worthy of serious respect, effectively wrote a Masters jacket out of his career aspirations.  As it happened, his Major successes were two US Opens, two Open Championships and two PGAs.

Nicklaus, on the other hand, placed no barriers between himself and achievement at the highest level.  Of his first experience of links terrain, which happened to be at Muirfield in the 1959 Walker Cup, the Bear later recalled: “It remains one of the most interesting and exciting events I’ve ever played, because it was my first trip to Scotland and my first trip to Britain, period.  It was also the first time I had seen a links and I really enjoyed it.  I had fun with it.”

He went on: “Not having grown up in wind, I had to learn how to play in it.  And I know I learned a lot from watching Joe Carr (the great Irish amateur) play links golf.  I saw him play an awful lot of two, three or four-irons off the tee and I came to realise that this was a pretty good way to play those courses.  It was the only way you could be certain of avoiding the bunkers.”

If it were possible, it would have been fascinating to establish precisely how many players among the 156 who started at Muirfield last Thursday, actually embraced the challenge.  And from that group, how many of them actually believed they were capable of winning the title.

Put another way, it is a safe bet that quite a few, especially from the US, would prefer to have been thousands of miles away from Muirfield, possibly in the comfort of their own home.  They were there simply because their prominence in the game required them to be, possibly because of commercial commitments.

Mickelson was honest enough to admit that he would have been a fully paid-up member of such a group at one point in his career.  As he said in those precious moments in the immediate aftermath of last Sunday’s victory: “I never knew I’d be able to win this tournament.”  If prompted, he would have had no difficulty in remembering a cruel weekend at Royal Birkdale in 1998 – the year of Mark O’Meara’s triumph – when he carded horrendous rounds of 85 and 78.

Nor would there have been any difficulty in recalling the infamous Saturday at Muirfield in 2002, when he slumped to a 76.  Nor an opening 79 at Birkdale four years ago, after he had helped the prospective champion, Padraig Harrington, repair damage to a suspect arm with a special laser appliance which he had in his hotel bedroom on the eve of battle.  And there was the spirited challenge he produced at Royal St George’s in 2011, when a closing 68 was still good enough only for a share of second place behind the rampant Clarke.

Crucially, through all of that, Mickelson never lost the desire to adapt to the special requirements of links terrain, through a lower ball-flight and greater accuracy off the tee.   So, when the time comes to compare the great ones of this and previous generations, we won’t have to look any further to distinguish between himself and Trevino.

- Dermot Gilleece

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