GULLANE, Scotland – The roars stopped for Phil Mickelson on the 16th hole when, out of the blue, his putting stroke failed him.
A four-putt, three of which came from inside 4 feet, sent him tumbling over par for the first time in 34 holes of the British Open. As he strolled up to the 17th fairway, after a perfect tee shot, the crowd watched in stunned silence, in a pall really, not knowing what to do. Eventually it managed a few claps, one "Go Phil," as the normally jovial Mickelson sauntered by staring at the ground.
To that point, it had been a grueling, but effective second round for Mickelson. He sat 1-under par, only one stroke back of where he started Friday and just three back of then-leader Zach Johnson. A par at 16, then birdie at the next hole, a reachable-in-two par-5, would move him into a tie with Tiger Woods and in the middle of the hunt.
He's still in the hunt – just four strokes back of 49-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez – but has a little more ground to make up.
The irony is Phil had gotten there with his putter. Coming into the tournament, he spoke glowingly about the remedy he'd recently discovered after years of searching.
Gone is the gambling man, replaced by what only a few months ago would have been thought to be an imposter. Methodical is Mickelson's game now, managing what the course gives him rather than proving he can wrestle it to the ground.
He's put away the driver, eschewing length for accuracy, as he's come to a realization that making the fairway still gives him a shot at birdie and the worst outcome being par.
And par being a good score, it's worked.
Methodical Mickelson nearly won the U.S. Open, finishing second, and did win the Scottish Open just last week.
He came to Muirfield not only knowing he could win, but armed with the game and strategy to walk the talk.
But then No. 16 happened. A slight yank of his tee shot, but still on the green – nothing to worry about, especially not after lagging a 30-footer with a 10-foot break to within a putter's length. Only he missed the comebacker and then the next and that's how he removed his name from the first page of the leaderboard at a major tournament.
"I just didn't play for enough break on the direct crosswind," Mickelson explained. "Something you don't see on TV, because you can't tell which way the wind is blowing. But that's a huge factor on those short putts."
If he were the only one, two misses from inside 4 feet might have been embarrassing, but Muirfield being what it is this week – rock-hard greens that produce less friction than Switzerland – has made for some 36-handicap-esque moments, even for the pros. Nicolas Colsaerts five-putted the 15th.
"It's part of the game. It happens," Mickelson said. "It's going to happen to everybody. Everybody is going to miss those length putts. Everybody has. I saw Tiger miss a couple today. I saw all these guys out here [missing short putts], too, because it's hard."
Any visions of the winning score tumbling well below par were dampened by Friday evening when Johnson, the first-round leader at 5-under, dropped four strokes over the final five holes. Just nine players head into the weekend under par, and for the remaining 36 holes par is expected to be a solid score.
Being four back isn't the situation Mickelson envisioned himself in when he walked to the 16th green – not after draining a slippery 7-footer to save par on the dangerous 15th – but's it's the one he's in, all because of one little putt.
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