Tour players following Phil Mickelson's pre-Open precedent

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Fifty-two weeks ago, who could have guessed that Phil Mickelson would be a links golf trendsetter?

A claret jug can change everything, though, and so a year after Lefty completed the improbable double dip, the Scottish Open field has been transformed from one of its worst in 2013 to arguably its best ever.

Rory McIlroy and Jimmy Walker. Justin Rose and Ian Poulter. Lee Westwood and Rickie Fowler. Matt Every and Ryan Palmer and Kevin Streelman. They’re all here.

Sure, heading to a proper links like Royal Aberdeen certainly helps. But that’s not the only reason why so many big names have made the trip across the pond early. Chalk up the rest to the Phil Factor.

“I think it influenced a lot of people,” said McIlroy, making his first Scottish Open start since 2009. “It definitely influenced me. I played with Phil the first two days at Muirfield, and you could see his links game was very sharp. Coming off the win the week before and everything, I think it put it in a lot of guys’ heads.”

That’s the same tone struck by Fowler, who added, “Phil set the standard and put the ideas in all of our heads.”

Winning the week before a major usually spells doom at the Big Ones, with players fearing that perhaps they had peaked too soon. That’s never seemed to bother Mickelson, who prefers tuning up for major championships by playing the week before. In 2006, he won at TPC Sugarloaf and then again the following week at Augusta. This is his 12th Scottish Open.

Back-to-back titles, though, are a bonus. More than any other major, this Open tune-up is about “going through the checklist,” as Fowler likes to say, and growing acclimated to the time change, the style of golf, the food and the conditions. Nasty weather is expected to roll in during the tournament. You won’t find 55-degree temperatures and a biting, 30-mph wind this week in Silvis, Ill., or Jupiter, Fla.

Just like a year ago, Mickelson enters this week’s Scottish Open not knowing what to expect.

In 2013, it was because of his longstanding love-hate relationship with links golf. At least he had a few reasons for optimism, following his breakthrough T-2 at Royal St. George’s in 2011.

Now, though, Mickelson’s uneasiness stems from his form. He hasn’t produced a top-10 on the PGA Tour since last August, and his only top 10 worldwide came in his 2014 season opener in Abu Dhabi. Worse, he’s ranked outside the top 100 in total driving, putting and wedge play (75-100 yards, normally his bread-and-butter shot).

Hey, at least it stays light until about 11 p.m. at Royal Aberdeen, giving Mickelson plenty of time to practice.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go,” he conceded Wednesday. “I’m still working on my game.”

His plan worked last year, culminating with the most satisfying victory of his career.

Perhaps the same will be true this year – for one of Mickelson’s new links golf followers.

-- Ryan Lavner,

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