x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Appearing at times to be of two minds, Phil Mickelson always at one purpose

Naturally right-handed, Phil Mickelson combines the best of both disciplines, left-brained and right, writes Steve Elling.

Phil Mickelson’s closing round of 66 at Muirfield delivered his first British Open title.
Phil Mickelson’s closing round of 66 at Muirfield delivered his first British Open title.

You probably have heard the tale, so we will keep it succinct.

Phil Mickelson might be nicknamed Lefty, but he is naturally right-handed. He became a left-handed golfer while standing directly opposite his father, trying to replicate his dad's swing, as a child.

Still, it might partly illuminate why Mickelson, alternately the most intoxicating and infuriating player of the past two decades, seems to be both a left-brained and right-brained player, depending on the moment.

In what might represent the most crystalline description of the five-time major champion ever uttered, the former Ryder Cup captain and network analyst Paul Azinger told the US television audience on Sunday: "He's the perfect convergence of artist and engineer."

He is both a thinker and a tinkerer, a tactician and magician.

Even at age 43, nobody is quite like Mickelson, who remains nitroglycerine in cleats. After two decades as a professional, watching Mickelson perform his craft is not so much a roller-coaster ride, it is the entire theme-park experience.

For years, Mickelson either was unwilling or unable to adapt his game to the nuances of links golf, where wind, hard turf and rain force contenders to adjust.

Over the past few seasons, Mickelson finally embraced the ancient game, and two years ago, at 41, held the lead on the back nine at the British Open, only the second time he had contended in the game's oldest event.

Four days ago, in a Sunday scramble that will be remembered well beyond the remainder of his career, Mickelson matched the low round of the week with a closing 66 at Muirfield, blowing past several headliners to win the claret jug for the first time.

From claret jughead to claret juggernaut, just like that.

"It took me a while to figure it out," Mickelson said. "It's so different than what I grew up playing. I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship."

He always had the skill and smarts, just not the willingness to adapt. Finally, the internal engineer took a back seat to the artiste, and he began to morph — with a few Phil flourishes added.

In textbook Mickelson fashion, a man who once won a Masters title with two drivers in the bag won at Muirfield with zero.

Much has been said about Mickelson's record six runner-up finishes at the US Open, including last month's disappointment. It remains the lone leg of the four majors that he has not yet conquered.

But he did not claim his first major until he was nearly 34.

After finishing first and second in the two Opens this summer, with a victory in the Scottish Open in between, he says he has never played better.

Only five players have secured all four parts of the grand slam.

The engineer in Mickelson's head might point out the statistical improbability of joining such an elite group. But the conjuror would veto the notion.

 

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