Cam Cole: Heady Mickelson Holds Onto Slim Open Lead, But Stenson’s Closing In
TROON, Scotland — Two things Phil Mickelson absolutely had to do Friday after shooting 63, and nearly 62, in the first round of the Open Championship: keep his head on his shoulders, and keep his hat on his head.
The first took experience. The second took a metal paper clip. And not just a small one, but one of those bulldog jobs that hold 20-page briefs together. Mr. Blackwell would not have approved.
“I had to do it last week (at the Scottish Open),” Mickelson said, sheepishly, “so yeah. I know it looks terrible, but it is what it is. I know.”
Either Lefty’s head has gotten smaller (doubtful) or his hat is the wrong size, but either way, in the intermittent heavy rain and occasionally blustery breeze Friday, Mickelson did exactly what he needed to do at Royal Troon, following up a low round with a solid 69 to hold off his pack of pursuers and retain the lead — albeit a slimmer one — heading into the weekend.
What had been a three-shot advantage overnight and as large as five when he nearly aced the eighth hole, the famous Postage Stamp, to go 11-under-par, shrank to just one stroke when Sweden’s Henrik Stenson blazed home with a back-nine 32 (to Mickelson’s 36) and a Friday’s best round of six-under-par 65.
That’s the same Stenson who finished second to Mickelson at the 2013 Open at Muirfield.
“I was five back of Phil from yesterday, so of course I was hoping to gain a little, and the way it turned out I gained quite a lot,” said the 40-year-old Stenson, who’s won some big tournaments in his time — the 2009 Players Championship; the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship in 2013 — but never a major, though he’s had three top-3’s in the Open.
“It’s still early in the tournament, though. We’re only halfway through or not even there,” Stenson said. “But so far so good. I’m happy with the way I played of course. It’s not easy out there.”
For the morning players, the anticipated monsoon never arrived, though there were periods of heavy rain in between “bright patches,” as they call it over here. When it wasn’t pouring, there were plenty of birdies.
“I think I timed it quite well,” Stenson said. “It was quite playable the first five holes before the rain hit the first time, and I managed to pick up three birdies on 3, 4 and 5. Then it eased off and I birdied another one on 7.”
He gave away a shot at the ninth, but “then the fun really started” with the weather, Stenson said, which made his three back-nine birdies (and no bogeys) all the more impressive.
The afternoon wave was entirely wiped out by high winds and a mid-round deluge, so what everyone hopes won’t happen at an Open, happened. Half the field, including Jordan Spieth and, to a lesser extent Rory McIlroy (though he made the cut), lost by the luck of the draw.
Mickelson caught the good half, and plotted his way around in 33-36, with his first two bogeys of the week at the 12th and 15th.
“I thought it was a good round to back up the low one yesterday,” he said. “I made one or two bad swings that led to bogeys. But for the most part kept the ball in play and played kind of stress-free golf.
“One of the things that I’ve really worked on over the years is getting a ball onto the ground quickly, so the ground is affecting it more so than the air. That 2-iron that I hit is taking a lot of stress for me away from my tee shots … that has led to me playing well in the elements today and hopefully in the winds that we’ll have tomorrow.”
Mickelson, at 46 years and 29 days, is halfway to becoming the oldest Open champion since Old Tom Morris in 1867, who had Phil by about 75 days.
Others may have something to say about that storyline, however, though not the ones you might expect.
The Big Four of Jason Day, Spieth, Dustin Johnson and McIlroy haven’t made much noise, their play erratic gusting to pouty, and so the primary chasers, 36 holes in, are Stenson and, two further shots back, Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and Mickelson’s old Ryder Cup partner Keegan Bradley, who matched 68s.
Defending champion Zach Johnson (70, -5), 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel (66, -4) and Sergio Garcia (70, -4) are among other semi-luminaries also sniffing around.
The storm did have one small benefit. It moved the cut to 4-over-par, saving Spieth, Colin Montgomerie, Jim Furyk, Danny Willett and Graeme McDowell, among others. But they are only playing for money now. The big prize is gone.
Stenson said that Mickelson should have the advantage over him on the weekend based on having already won five majors including the 2013 Open, but on the other hand, “he’s six years older than me, so I should be a little stronger, shouldn’t I?” he joked. “We’ll see if that has anything to do with it. But still a long ways to go. There is no point starting to think about outcome at this stage, really. Even though you keep on asking me about it all the time.”
“I understand the age thing,” Mickelson said, “but the fact is that from 10 years ago, when I was playing my best golf, I’m 25 pounds lighter, I’m in better shape, I’m physically stronger than I was,” said Mickelson. “And now that my swing is back on plane, I’m starting to hit some shots like I did 10 years ago. So I don’t see why there’s any reason I can’t continue that — not just this week but for years. That’s kind of what the game plan is.”