LOCH LOMOND // The last time REM headlined a prime summer music festival in Scotland, Phil Mickelson unearthed sufficient time to complete his third round at the Barclays Scottish Open before making a four-hour return trip by car to watch the American rock band captivate thousands of fans.
That was five years ago but Mickelson, a former US Masters and USPGA champion, is hoping for a similar reception himself this week in the manicured and elite environs of Loch Lomond. Like the band's lead singer Michael Stipe, who is again playing in Scotland this week, America's Mickelson remains an act fit for the main stage. As a swashbuckling left-hander, he has a natural, bounding flair and an enduring short game, but he also possesses a propensity to blow up which has made for some enthralling viewing over the past few decades.
Mickelson's magic and misery on a golf course are moments to be cherished, even if they have left him, at times, a tortured sort of soul on the fairways. From the final-hole putt that won him the Masters in 2004 to the final-hole double bogey that saw him squander the US Open at Winged Foot in 2006, Mickelson has experienced some serious heat in competing at the highest levels of this unruly game.
His driving was equally wayward at the key moment in this event last year when he closed with a round of 69, before smashing a tee shot into reeds on the 18th that enabled the unfancied Frenchman Gregory Havret to come in from the cold and down him in a play-off. Everybody hurts sometimes, as Stipe likes to sing, but Mickelson, 38, only projected an air of optimism as he strode into a media conference yesterday morning to lay out his plans for this bewitching fortnight.
As he discussed this week, and his final preparations for the 137th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale next week, Mickelson was, as usual, not lacking in soundbites. "I've really enjoyed playing this tournament over the past few years. I came so close last year, and I'm hoping to improve on that this year," said Mickelson. The par 71 Loch Lomond track differs from Royal Birkdale, and Mickelson arrives in Scotland fresh from working out his strategy for major success.
He flew into the UK on Sunday and immediately began what he describes as his "coursework".In the absence of the injured Tiger Woods, Mickelson, rated as the second best player in the world, will be the highest-ranked player in the world at the Open. He quickly dismissed suggestions that he has suddenly become the favourite to lift the Claret Jug at the course where he played his first Open Championship as an amateur in 1991.
"When I came out on tour, we didn't have world rankings," he said. "They weren't even around, so it wasn't as though I grew up thinking about who the top-ranked players are. "I've never thought that way. I think Birkdale is an amazing golf course. It's always been a special place for me relative to the Open Championship. "I think it's one of the better courses in the UK. I think it's going to be a wonderful championship, because the course is in immaculate shape and it's a very good fair, difficult test and I'm looking forward to it.
"It's going to a be real shootout, and a fun event to watch." In the absence of Tiger at Birkdale, Mickelson pinpointed the defending Open champion Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott and Ernie Els, who is also competing at Loch Lomond, as players who would carry a serious threat.He concedes that the absence of Woods is damaging to the image of the sport, despite the looming intensity of the third major of the year around the corner.
"I'm sorry that you have to get used to him not being there for one event," he said. "We have to get used to him not being there for the rest of our events in the US. "It's going to gave a negative effect, obviously, on TV ratings, on fan interest and so forth. "But it also opens up an opportunity for a number of players to come through and maybe win tournaments that they might not have won." Mickelson's best outcome in the Open was to finish third behind the winner Todd Hamilton in 2004, but he hankers after rosier times this week, and at Birkdale.
"Next week is on everybody's minds, and we are all trying to get ready for next week. But part of getting ready for next week is playing well this week." Wherever he finishes this week, Mickelson has no plans to return to the music festival to watch REM after he completes his final round on Sunday. "I went a few years ago, and it was very interesting," he added. "We've had some friends there. I think that they are playing Sunday, if I'm not mistaken.
"I saw some interesting things that week, but I think I'm going to choose to withhold from going this year." The British Open means everything to a man of Mickelson's standing, but the Scottish Open also means something as well. They might occupy different entertainment spectrums, but REM and the man they call "Lefty" will both aim to be full of good feeling when Sunday has concluded. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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