HOYLAKE, England — British Open week began here Monday with casual practice rounds and casual chatter. As is only fair, last year’s champion, Phil Mickelson, got to chatter the most.
He said he was not discouraged about playing poorly ever since he won that title at Muirfield, one that anybody who knew anything about golf was sure he never could. Mickelson’s game, after all, just didn’t seem suited to playing in rain slicks and navigating mudslides and areas of rough that resembled cornfields, and getting the ball close to the hole on gigantic rock-hard greens that took his high shots and spit them off the sides and down the hills.
Then he made four birdies in the closing six holes at Muirfield, sank a side-hill slider for birdie on No. 18 and told the suddenly adoring crowd afterward that he never thought he could do it in a British Open.
Only he didn’t call it the British Open. If you do that publicly here, you face instant deportation. It is “The Open,” except in the U.S., where we feel a need to distinguish it from our own Open.
“It obviously hasn’t been a good year,” Mickelson said. “Normally, I would be discouraged or frustrated, but I’m just not.”
He said that parts of his game are in good shape and all he needs to do is get them all working as a whole.
In response to a question about being 44 and heading toward the twilight of a great career that has already included five major championships, he said, “I actually feel better than I have in years.”
He said he will add to his bag a special two-iron and a 65-degree wedge “that has very little bounce.” Those are geared to the hard ground at this Royal Liverpool course, known affectionately as Hoylake.
He also said he frequently watches a taped version of his final round at Muirfield last year “when I need a little bit of a confidence boost.”
He said he was happy Tiger Woods is back in the mix. “We all benefit from having him in the tournament,” Mickelson said.
No less than Tom Watson, five-time British champion, echoed that.
“I wouldn’t write Tiger off for a long time,” Watson said.
The only little shank in the day, and a slight one at that, was Mickelson’s account of some fine wine that was drunk from the Claret Jug, the revered trophy that signifies the British Open champion and is allowed to reside with him for the next year.
Some champions put nothing in it, considering that almost sacrilegious. Others go with whatever fits their taste.
Stewart Cink had some barbecue sauce in it for a party. Darren Clarke nodded to his Irish heritage with many gulps of Guinness from therein.
Mickelson, as might befit his lifestyle, drank some fine wine — really fine wine — from the Claret Jug. He said that one night a friend poured in a portion of a bottle of 1990 Romanee-Conti Burgundy.
“I didn’t know what it was when I drank it,” Mickelson said. “I just knew it was real good.”
Real good? Try this good:
Three years ago, a case of 1990 Romanee-Conti Burgundy sold for $297,000, or roughly $25,000 a bottle. That was three years ago. Think inflation.
Later, Mickelson elaborated when he said, “It was delicious and I’m very appreciative. We drank a few of those bottles that night.”
A few bottles? As we texters would say: OMG.
Also, there was a nuance there not totally understood. One British reporter didn’t let it pass, however.
“By the way,” he said, “did you know that Romanee-Conti is a Burgundy that you put in the Claret Jug?”
Translation: Did it occur to you that you drank French wine out of the holy grail of English sport?
Oh, well. ‘Twas a small kerfuffle.
Veteran players Mark O’Meara and Steve Stricker have pulled out of the tournament. According to tournament officials, no reason was given for either, and none was needed unless the players were on site, which neither was. Their two replacements, in line because of ranking and points, are Ross Fisher of England and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.
Much is being made here of Justin Rose’s victory in the Scottish Open on Sunday, and why not? Rose, last year’s U.S. Open champion at Merion, Pa., was among the favorites here anyway, though much of that was driven by the fact that he is English. Then, last year, Mickelson took the Scottish Open the week before winning at Muirfield, so now Rose’s title is being viewed as sort of an omen.
It is impossible to read the British newspapers — yes, they still sell them in big numbers and read them ardently here, foreshadowing an upcoming generation of informed Brit adults — and not get a chuckle out of the wit.
Graham Spiers in the Times refers to Mickelson’s fairway walk as “an agricultural stride.” Who cares what it means? It is delightful.
Rick Broadbent in the Times calls British player Ian Poulter, with his wacky clothing schemes, “The doyen of dayglow.”
And then there is Broadbent on Tiger Woods and his life since he won here in ‘06: “So much water has flowed from the fire hydrant and under the bridge that he needs instant success to make the Ryder Cup team.”
Jolly good reading.