GULLANE, Scotland – Over the years, links golf and Phil Mickelson have gone together like haggis and jalapenos. They have been a perfectly dreadful combination.
But now, Phil says he's come around. Like, all the way around. If you listen to him, it's now like haggis and … uh, whatever goes splendidly with sheep innards.
"It's hate-love," Mickelson said Tuesday from Muirfield, site of this year's British Open. "I used to hate it and now I love it."
What next, Rick Pitino and John Calipari playing member-member? Bubba Watson taking the driver out of his bag? Tiger and Sergio laughing it up in a practice round?
Mickelson, of course, is the second-most prominent and accomplished golfer on the planet. He's also the guy with a total of zero British Open titles. And while he also has the career bagel in the U.S. Open, he's come in second in that event a record six times – including another narrow miss last month at Merion.
No such close-but-not-quite track record for Phil over here.
Mickelson has twice as many missed cuts in the British (four) as he has top-10 finishes (two). That includes last year, when he went 73-78-see ya later at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
But the Mickelson who met the media at Muirfield sure didn't sound like futile Phil. He sounded more like formidable Phil, who may have the best chance of his career to win a Claret Jug this week.
First, he raved about the new putting stroke he's been working this year (but refused to divulge what tweaks he's made to said stroke).
"I am really optimistic about this week and going forward because I'm starting to putt as well as I ever have," Mickelson said. "… You've seen me try the belly putter, you've seen me try different grips, and finally I believe I have kind of found the secret to my own putting."
Then he raved on the 3-wood he's been using more off the tees instead of the driver that has often led him into heather, gorse and whatever other inhospitable weeds the British Open has to offer. Mickelson didn't use a driver while finishing second at Merion last month, and he won't use one here – he's hooked on a short-swing 3-wood for distance.
"This 3-wood has changed my game," he said. "You've seen me hit fairways and not have big misses. It's changed the way I feel about the Open Championship."
And he's coming off a victory Sunday in the Scottish Open – his first career victory on British soil. That links tune-up could be a springboard to a sensational two weeks in the United Kingdom.
"It's difficult to win the week before a major and then follow it up winning the major," Mickelson said, then he flashed his dimples. "But then again, the last person to do it – you're looking at him."
That was in 2006, when Phil won the BellSouth Classic one week and The Masters the next. This double would trump that in terms of degree of difficulty, at least for Mickelson.
The weird thing is that it has come to this – a 0-for-17 record between two entities that seemed destined for each other. The Open demands creativity and flair that is far different from the target-golf precision of the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, and the grip-it-and-rip-it accessibility of The Masters. Mickelson is nothing if not creative.
Yet it has never worked out, to the consternation of many.
Mickelson embarked on a detailed, golf-wonky explanation of it Tuesday, basically boiling it down to this: "strong blades" of fescue grass on the greens, and too much wind.
The wind has been a persistent problem for Lefty in Britain, largely because he loves playing the ball high and most links holes favor those who can control it low. It has been as much altitude as attitude that has held Mickelson back all these years.
Now, he comes to Muirfield armed with what he labeled a "low, little scooting shot" first implemented in 2004 with the help of guru Dave Pelz. He comes armed with the secret putting sauce. He comes armed with momentum gained last month at the U.S. Open and buttressed last week at the Scottish Open.
And if the weather forecast for the week holds – disappointingly mild, if you love your Open with a little atmospheric mayhem – this could be the perfect storm for Phil Mickelson. A hate-love relationship could finally blossom into hate-love-win.
Haggis and jalapenos for everyone if that happens.
Phil Mickelson, practicing Tuesday at Muirfield, is excited about his new putting stroke. (AP Photo)
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