FAVOURITES REFLECT ON NERVOUS DEBUTS
Open favourites Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson can still vividly remember their first nervous steps towards lifting the Claret Jug.
Between them they have won six major championships, more than 100 tournaments worldwide and appeared in 32 Open Championships.
But Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson can still vividly remember their first nerve-racking experience of the Open as they prepare to do battle for the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale.
In the absence of the injured Tiger Woods, the duo find themselves vying for favouritism with last year’s runner-up Sergio Garcia. Els is seeking his second Open title and Mickelson a first.
And it will all be a far cry from the time Els was concerned about “embarrassing” himself on his debut at Troon in 1989 as a 19-year-old amateur.
“Ever since I was a young guy playing over here in some of the events I’ve always liked the Open for some reason,” explained Els, winner at Muirfield in 2002 in a four-man play-off.
“I grew up in Johannesburg so there’s no special reason I should have liked it, but I did. I played my very first Open at Troon almost 20 years ago. I missed the cut but I felt I didn’t embarrass myself, and that was good!
“I always felt like I would enjoy it and I would say ever since 1992 when I finished fifth (behind Nick Faldo at Muirfield), I just felt very at ease playing links golf.”
Asked why he was worried about embarrassing himself, Els added: “I walked on the range with my brother caddying for me and we’re just looking around at guys we have seen on television.
“Then a guy called Jack Nicklaus pulled in next to me to warm up for his practice round and I could barely hit a shot. In the company of great men like that you feel like you’ve either arrived or you shouldn’t be there.”
Mickelson’s Open debut also came as an amateur, and coincidentally at Birkdale in 1991, the year Australia’s Ian Baker-Finch won by two shots from compatriot Mike Harwood.
“I remember the first time I went on the driving range and it was blowing as hard as I’ve ever seen it blow,” recalled Mickelson, who made the cut but finished 72nd.
“I was trying to hit these 2-irons and I couldn’t get it to go 150 yards and I just remember being blown away at the conditions and what I was seeing.
“Nobody else was on the range, and rightfully so. I just thought it would be cool to see what it was like and it was an interesting ordeal.
“I stayed with Ted Halsall who caddied for me that week and had caddied for Johnny Miller when he won at Birkdale in 1976. He was telling me stories of what an incredible iron player Johnny was, how the distance control was impeccable, but how many short putts he would miss. But that particular week he was making them and ended up winning.”
Mickelson’s own Open record is hugely disappointing for a player of his calibre, just one top-10 finish in 15 appearances – the 38-year-old finished third, one shot outside the play-off between eventual winner Todd Hamilton and Els.
The world number two played three practice rounds at Birkdale before travelling north for the Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, and believes he has a good chance of claiming a fourth major title.
“I believe that because I’ve progressed in the last three or four years in my ability to control my trajectory, keep it down, will give me the best chance to perform well in next week’s Open.
“I think Birkdale’s an amazing golf course, I think it’s one of the better courses in the UK. I think it’s going to be a wonderful championship because the course is in immaculate shape and it’s a very good, fair, difficult test.”
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