Phil Mickelson took advantage of the ideal conditions at Castle Stuart on Thursday morning — 70-plus degrees, no wind, and not a cloud in sight — and fired an opening six-under 66 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
Mickelson’s game appears to be shaping up quite nicely for next week’s Open Championship, and while others, including U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, are playing practice rounds at Muirfield to prepare, Phil prefers to play competitively the week before a major.
(As you may recall, he was very irked earlier this year when the Shell Houston Open was held two weeks before the Masters, which threw off his preparation and may have impacted his performance at Augusta National.)
“I love everything about this golf course,” said Phil. “It plays extremely well under all conditions, whether it’s firm and fast; it was so well thought-out, whether it’s wet, there’s still opportunities to get the ball in play and make birdies.”
The Inverness area — and all of Scotland for that matter — has been experiencing a heat wave the last couple of weeks, so the conditions are indeed firm and fast, making it a perfect practice tee for Muirfield.
“I think from a design standpoint it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen and these firm, fast conditions are great for next week. And the reason I love playing this week before next week is that it gives me an opportunity to hit all the shots I’ll play next week, all the bump-and-run shots, the chips around the greens, putts off the green, and yet it doesn’t beat you up and it doesn’t punish you the way we’ll get punished next week. You can only handle so much of that.
“To be able to play here, make birdies, have fun and still work on the shots for next week, it’s just a perfect way to get ready.”
The popular assumption here is that Phil is more focused on priming his game for the loftier stage next week instead of trying to contend at Castle Stuart — and if that is indeed the case, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Last month Graeme McDowell caught heat for his controversial remarks about the Scottish Open — which he has since apologized for — suggesting the event had lost some of its prestige because Castle Stuart hadn’t been a “strong enough” test of golf. But, for Mickelson, it’s just right.
“The reason I think it’s just the perfect setup for next week is that it gives you a chance to hit all the shot we’ll play next week; to have play those bump-and-run iron shots into the greens; run shots up; putt from off the green; bump-and-run chips; putt on fescue-type greens, but not get beat up the week before.
“You can only handle so much punishment the week of The Open where the rough is so thick and the penalty for a miss is so great, so it’s nice to have a week where you don’t get punished and you are still hitting the same shots.”
However, when asked if he was playing just with his eye on Muirfield or if he was thinking about winning, Phil said, “Oh, absolutely, and I think the best way to get ready for next week is to get into contention and to feel that nervousness and those butterflies and to try to win.
“When I won the Masters in ’06, I ended up winning the week before by 13 in Atlanta and I thought that couldn’t have been a better way to get ready. So, absolutely, if you can play well, get in contention and hopefully win, that’s the best preparation possible for next week.”
Meanwhile, John Parry shot an eight-under 64 to take the first-round lead. Parry credited his fine play at last month’s U.S. Open, where he finished T28, for his hot start at Castle Stuart.
“I think the US Open was the catalyst for me to start playing better and making cuts,” Parry said. “When you start getting four rounds under your belt, just playing more, you start getting better results.
“The US Open is renowned for being the toughest event of the year. You know if you can compete in that, you can compete on any course. It’s good for your confidence.”
In case you haven’t seen this yet, here’s a video I took yesterday of Phil conversing with Bones over the tee shot on the 10th hole in the pro-am.