Column: Aging well, Phil still learning new tricks

Tuesday - 7/17/2012, 3:06pm EDT

By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England (AP) - He is one of those guys people have in mind when they say "so-and-so leads a charmed existence."

Phil Mickelson might have argued that point not too long ago, at least where the British Open was involved. But no more. As if Mickelson needed reminding, he crested a hill in the 17th fairway Tuesday at Royal Lytham to find his tee shot wasn't nearly as disastrous as he had imagined.

Sure, it was only a practice round, but considering how much money was being wagered by the lefty and playing partners Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, and Nick Watney, a break that good was likely to pay dividends. That was confirmed once Mickelson's caddie, trailing by several strides, located the boss' ball.

"That's what I'm talkin' about!" Jim "Bones" Mackay howled.

It had come to rest inches from the right edge of the last of seven deep bunkers lining the left side of the fairway. If Mickelson had been a right-hander, he would have had to step into the sand, dig in his cleats and hit the approach from a lie with the ball some two feet above his own.

Instead, he quickly set up on the starboard side of the ball and sent an 8-iron zooming to within a dozen feet of the flag. The value of that routine par at 17 became clear some 20 minutes later, when Mickelson and Fowler strolled off the 18th green with fatter wallets, wider grins and _ wouldn't you know it? _ moments ahead of yet another downpour.

There was a time when Mickelson found very little to like about playing on this side of the pond. Having grown up in San Diego, he wasn't crazy about the weather. As a player whose strengths are flighting the ball with different trajectories and delicate spins, he seemed unsettled by the unyielding turf and the need to play the ball along the ground.

That much was apparent from his track record at the Open, easily his worst among the game's four majors.

"Aside from the success you had last year, how would you describe how your attitude toward this championship has changed?" Mickelson was asked.

He considered the question a moment. "It's evolved favorably, I think. It took me a while to be able to understand what it meant to get the ball on the ground. ... It didn't really click until six, eight years ago.

"Now," he added, "when it gets really bad weather, my misses in crosswinds are not as bad as they used to be, because it's on the ground and out of the wind a lot quicker. And that's made me really enjoy and appreciate playing links golf and playing in the elements."

Last week, Mickelson even cut short a family vacation to play in the Scottish Open, where he finished tied for 16th.

"He's finally getting the whole bad-weather thing," said Butch Harmon, Mickelson's swing coach. "He likes to bomb the ball, take risks and, until the last couple years, he was stubborn about changing.

"But the second last year at (Royal) St. George's reinforced some of the work we'd been doing and now, the worse the conditions, the more conservative his game gets. If Phil is going to win one of these," Harmon added, "it will be because he's playing them a lot differently from the way he used to."

Mickelson's play on links courses is hardly the only thing that's changed during his career. He won a PGA Tour event as a 21-year-old amateur, but another 13 years passed before Mickelson won his first major. There's no way to know how many more he might have won had Tiger Woods not come along to dominate what should have been Mickelson's prime. And yet, you could argue he's aged more gracefully than his grandest rival and last year, according to Forbes magazine, even put more money in the bank.

He's also part of a group bidding to buy his hometown baseball team, and not just because he loves throwing the ball around and perhaps has designs on becoming the Padres' batting-practice pitcher.

"There were a number of reasons. But I really like the people I'm involved with," Mickelson said. "And I think they're just as competitive as I am."

The quick smile and swashbuckling style have been tempered by his recent battle with psoriatic arthritis, as well as those of his wife and mother against breast cancer. That competitive edge, though, hasn't been dulled.