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British title missing link for Mickelson

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Associated Press
July 14, 2010
— For his sanity, Phil Mickelson would love nothing more than to win the U.S. Open.

For his legacy, he would be better off winning the British Open.


Ideally, he wants both trophies.


That only five players since the Masters was created in 1934 have won the career Grand Slam—Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods—is enough to consider it the ultimate lifetime achievement in golf.


“If you win all four majors, you’ve shown yourself to be a complete player,” Mickelson said Tuesday. “Because at Augusta it requires length, at the U.S. Open it requires patience and control, and the British Open requires a whole different shot pattern of run-up shots and bump-and-runs and lag putting and shots along the ground. And the PGA is kind of a mixture of the three at times.


“I think that’s the goal for all players.”


But what if he can only win one?


The U.S. Open is more meaningful to Mickelson, not only as an American, but from years of heartache. He already has been a runner-up five times at his national championship, and he was two shots away at Pebble Beach last month from making it six silver medals.


As for the British Open?


Mickelson answered that himself when he walked off the 18th green earlier this week and stopped to speak to a few British reporters. One of them, aware of his paltry record at golf’s oldest championship, asked if he felt his career would be lacking without a claret jug.


Lefty put a different spin on it.


“I don’t know about lacking,” Mickelson said. “But it would make my career more complete.”


No one can question that he is among the great players in golf history, with 40 victories and four majors in an era where titles are tougher to come by. Winning the British Open would show that he has a game for every occasion—for every turf.


It’s the one time golf can be compared with tennis. There are specialists on clay, grass and the hard court in tennis. In golf, there are American courses and links golf.


Links golf is the most limited brand in the world. It’s also how the game began.


“I just feel if you want to be a world-class player, I think you’ve got to do something on links golf,” Ernie Els said. “I mean, this is where the game started. This is the original way the game was played. Whether you like it or not, I think you need to be able to somehow masters links golf somewhere in your career.”


Todd Hamilton mastered it at Royal Troon in 2004, just as Ben Curtis did the year before at Royal St. George’s. Neither of them will ever be in the same conversation as Mickelson.


Yet there is something about having a British Open among multiple majors that set the great ones apart even more.


Dating to 1960, when Arnold Palmer came across to St. Andrews and thus renewed interest among Americans in the Royal & Ancient game, 17 players have won at least three major championships.


Eleven of them have their names on the claret jug—Palmer, Nicklaus, Woods, Els, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Nick Price, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Padraig Harrington.


The six without a British Open? Raymond Floyd, Larry Nelson, Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart, Vijay Singh and Mickelson.


It is hard to find fault with the careers of Mickelson or Singh, with 56 worldwide wins and three majors (two PGAs and a Masters). Yet they would be regarded a notch higher by winning a British Open.


Surprising, neither of them has come close very often.


During his spectacular run through the majors in 2004, when Mickelson came within six shots of a shot at the Grand Slam, he finished third at Royal Troon, missing the playoff by one shot. That was his only top 10 in the British Open. His best at St. Andrews was a tie for 11th in 2000, when he finished 12 shots behind.


Singh finished two shots behind in 1995 at St. Andrews (a tie for sixth), and had his best shot at Royal St. George’s in 2003, when he missed one birdie chance after another on the back nine and was runner-up by a single shot.


Harrington was thrilled when he won the PGA Championship in 2008 at Oakland Hills. Yes, he became the first European in history to win successive majors in the same year. But his first two majors were on links courses—Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale—and winning an American major showed the breadth of his game.


The Irishman, happy with any major, actually puts more stock in the U.S. variety.


Harrington said for a player to only win the British Open makes him more likely to be labeled a one-dimensional player, but he doesn’t believe that’s the case for a player who wins only American majors.


“But to win an Open and one other, I think guys are regarded differently,” he said.


Without mentioning Peter Thomson by name, he argued that a player winning five British Opens and nothing else would be known as a master of links golf.


“But if that same player were to win five Opens and one U.S. major, he would be known only for winning six majors,” Harrington said.


Mickelson arrived at St. Andrews mindful of a famous line that Nicklaus once borrowed from Bobby Jones.


“A career just doesn’t feel complete unless you’ve won here at St. Andrews,” he said. “I think all the players feel the same way.”


For Mickelson, a claret jug anywhere would be just fine.



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