Sunday, July 18, 2004

Mickelson's under-control style paying off

The Arizona Republic

TROON, SCOTLAND - In the scoring summary passed out to the media at the British Open, one sheet lists the number of birdies, pars and bogeys for each player. Other scores are simply listed as "miracles" and "disasters."

Phil Mickelson narrowly avoided one of those "disasters" in the third round. As a result, he has a chance to pull off a win Sunday that would have been considered a "miracle" until this year.

Mickelson stuck to his game plan Saturday, taking advantage of the birdie-rich front nine by making three birdies, then parred every hole on the back nine to pull within two shots of surprise leader Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon.

Showing the same type of play that has marked his best season as a pro, Mickelson has played 37 holes without a bogey, and when did you think that would ever happen in a major championship? He has only three bogeys for the week; none since the 17th hole of Thursday's first round.

"It's nice not to give shots back," said Mickelson, who has written at least a couple chapters on that subject during his career.

While he has kept his shots under control, Mickelson also is fully aware that he got one huge break and another minor one down the stretch Saturday.

The biggest came on his drive at the 15th hole, where he hooked a 3-wood.

His ball caught a crosswind and had "OB" written all over it.

"I thought for sure that it was out of bounds," he said. "It should have gone out. Clearly it was a tremendous break. There's no way around it." As just about every player who has won a major championship, including Tiger Woods, will tell you, it takes a little luck here, a good bounce there and a break or two to complete the task.

Mickelson got all three when his ball hit one of the hearty spectators lining the cold, wet, windswept fairways and dropped down inches from the out-of-bounds line.

"There was nothing there to stop it," Mickelson said, "other than a gentleman's leg." From there, he said a very big "thank you" to his newfound friend, hit his second shot on the green and two-putted for par.

At the 18th hole, he got another break when his tee shot sailed across the right fairway, hit a metal fence, rattled around and fell into the rough.

Again he found the green from the rough, narrowly missed a 12-foot birdie putt and gladly settled for a par and a round of 68.

It was an interesting finish considering the way Mickelson started the round, by hitting his tee shot on the first hole over another metal fence and into the rough on the adjacent 18th hole. From there, he made the first of his three birdies.

"Every now and then you need something like that to keep you in there," he said of his good fortune.

But lucky breaks have only been a small part of a big story with Mickelson this season, including this week.

His preparation for major championships, approach to playing them and a tighter swing have produced most of the positive results, proving once again that the harder you work at something, the luckier you get.

Ernie Els, who trails Hamilton by one shot and is one ahead of Mickelson, is among those who have noticed the difference.

"Phil has done well in majors, although not here," Els said. "But he has changed his game. We've all seen that.

"He's playing the type of game that gets you in contention to win, and if he plays this way the rest of his career, he will be in contention in every major with all of his talent."

A victory at Royal Troon, would make Mickelson the eighth golfer to win the Masters and the British Open in the same season.

If that happens, we can only hope that he will skip the victory "leap" and just kiss the Claret Jug ... or a Scotsman's leg.

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