Can Phil Mickelson Crack the Open Championship Code at Muirfield?

The 43-year-old American Has a One-Sided Love Affair With Links Golf

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COMMENTARY | One of the biggest enigmas in professional golf remains why Phil Mickelson, one of the most creative and talented players of his era, has (up until last week) largely struggled playing links golf.

By most accounts, links golf is the purest form of the game; the challenge is a shot-maker's dream and one that more often than not rewards players with the vision and wherewithal to pull off difficult, albeit unusual shots (by PGA Tour standards).

Mickelson, a winner of more than 50 professional events and four major championships, has had a one-sided love affair with the oldest form of the game. Heading into the Scottish Open -- which he would go on to win in a playoff over Branden Grace -- Mickelson continued to reaffirm his love for golf in Scotland in general and with links golf, in particular.

"I think it would be one of my greatest accomplishments to be able to conquer links golf and to win an Open Championship over here," Mickelson said. "Although I've come close maybe twice, I have not really played my best golf. I think I've identified a couple of reasons why. It's time to shoot the scores and hit the shots that I've spent 20 years working on."

Mickelson has played in the Open 19 times, beginning in 1991, and despite making the cut in all but four of his starts, he averages a finish of 38th and boasts just two top 10 finishes. His best finish came two years ago when he tied as runner-up at Royal St. George's to Darren Clarke. His other top 10 came in 2004 when he finished solo third. The last time the Open was at Muirfield in 2002, Mickelson finished in a tie for 66th.

The San Diego native has a habit of talking a good game going into the Open, saying he is embracing playing the game along the ground, despite the fact that his entire golfing career has been played nearly exclusively through the air.

The question becomes whether he is truly embracing the style of play necessary to succeed on the British Isles or supremely confident enough to believe he can use his Americanized-through-the-air style to win an Open Championship.

Mickelson seemed to find a solid mixture of the two styles last week at Castle Stuart. The premium links golf places upon driving accuracy has long been one of Mickelson's biggest bugabboos in past failures at the Open but thanks to his new Phrankenwood, Mickelson has been able to find a more consistent ball flight while not sacrificing much of his distance.

This week at Muirfield, accuracy off the tee promises to be a large contributor to success, but according to reports from the ground, the course is running firm and fast, forcing many players, including Mickelson, to rethink their equipment makeup.

The Golf Channel's Todd Lewis reported that Mickelson will once again go driver-less at a major championship and even Phrankenwood-less at the Open, opting instead to -- wait for it -- put a fifth wedge in the bag.

The Mickelson mix, while not the conventional recipe for Open success, might figure to provide the 43-year-old his best chance at a Claret Jug this week at the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Of course, we must consider the source. No player has ever won the week before the Open Championship and gone on to win golf's oldest major. Then again, no player has ever brought as much flair and unpredictability to the Open as Mickelson.

Could this be the year that Mickelson breaks through and solves the Open puzzle, or are we destined to be left scratching our heads once again at week's end and wondering if Mickelson truly has embraced links golf?

Chris Chaney is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based sportswriter. He has written for multiple outlets including WrongFairway.com, Hoopville.com, The Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer and The Clermont (OH) Sun.

Follow him on Twitter @Wrong_Fairway.

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