By Jeff Babineau, Golfweek
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- There are some things in life that are just plain difficult to explain. Like why some parents with dark hair bear blonde-haired children. Like why pitcher Mariano Rivera is so unhittable. Like why those flying swallows don’t take one summer and visit a destination other than Capistrano.
Rory McIlroy spent roughly half his Friday at the 141st Open Championship immersed in some of Royal Lytham’s 205 bunkers, so when he sighed and declared it “just one of those days,” everyone within earshot knew exactly what he meant. Ditto Phil Mickelson. Having chopped his way around in 78 strokes, his highest score in relation to par at this tournament since the Carnoustie craziness of 1999, Mickelson threw his hands up in surrender and didn’t really know what to say.
Thus, about 8-10 times mere minutes after he finished, Mickelson would ponder his growing summer woes, pause, and state, “I don’t know what to say right now.”
Strangely enough, we understand. Outside of American Brandt Snedeker (64) blistering the storied links at Lytham Friday, mostly with his red-hot putter, not many of the 156 players could sustain success at Royal Lytham. It was difficult to pinpoint why, exactly, that was. Yes, the course was tricky. Yes, there was the standing water in several bunkers. Sure, some hole locations were difficult to access. And though the early northwest winds never did dial up to typical Open strength, they blew in from a direction that was opposite a day earlier.
“It felt like every hole we played was into the wind,” McIlroy said.
A day after jumping out to a promising start with 67, McIlroy shot 75, hovering near the potential cut line down the homestretch. Thursday, he’d had but one blemish on his card; a day later, he was loose and all over the place. He made five bogeys and tacked on a double at the par-3 ninth when it required two swipes to escape one of the five bunkers he found.
He said the ninth was a turning point, and not for the good. “I couldn’t really recover from that,” he admitted.
He could have, of course, but he did not, making three bogeys and needing 39 strokes on the way in. The darling of last summer’s U.S. Open at Congressional, where he blitzed the field by eight, McIlroy has struggled in trying to land a second major. In four major starts since Congressional, he has yet to finish better than T-25; at the U.S. Open at Olympic, he didn’t make the cut.
“It’s tough when you’re trying to get something going and it’s just not quite happening,” McIlroy said. He was speaking about Friday, but it seemed applicable to a bigger picture. “You’re just sort of trying to force it a little bit.”
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Mickelson, who began his day at 3 over and needed to play well just to make the cut, said he hit the ball more solidly than he had a day earlier, but he struggled to get anything out of his round. When he doubled the par-4 13th and then tacked on another double at 14, where he had to play out backwards from a greenside bunker, his fate was sealed.
“I felt I was going to have a little better round than I did,” said Mickelson, who’d worked late into the evening Thursday with instructor Butch Harmon to address a few flaws, including his ball position. In two days, he hit only 12 fairways and 15/36 greens. “It (the round) certainly got away from me the last five holes. I don’t know what to say.”
There, he said it again. Mickelson’s dossier at this championship is quite pedestrian (only two top 10s in 18 previous starts), but he usually works the weekend. This was his only his second missed cut at the Open since 1999. In fact, Mickelson had made the cut in each of his last 18 major championship starts. South African Charles Schwartzel was the only other player who’d survived the cut in each of the last 11 majors consecutively. (Mickelson did not play the 2009 Open at Turnberry.)
Next stop for Mickelson will be the WGC-Bridgestone in Akron in two weeks. There’s a good deal of work to do before then if he is to emerge from his post-Masters funk.
“I’ll work with Butch here in the next week and see if I can get some direction, and see if I can get into a little better play heading into these next two months, because we have some big tournaments,” he said.
As for McIlroy, he’ll have two more days at Lytham to right his game.
Quick story: Thursday, McIlroy struck a fan named Jason Blue in the head with an errant drive at the 15th hole, the ball bounding out of bounds. Later in the day, McIlroy and his management team were able to get in touch with the 16-year-old from Bristol and move Blue from his damp tent accommodations into the cozy comforts of a nearby hotel. McIlroy even peeled off 100 pounds and change for young Blue and his buddy to enjoy a nice meal.
“Nice touch,” said McIlroy’s manager, Conor Ridge.
Explained McIlroy, “It was the least I could do. If someone gave me a big hole in my head, I wouldn’t be too happy.”
Before he headed to the practice tee Friday, McIlroy met with the smiling lad, posed for some pictures, and wished him well. “Are you here for the weekend?” McIlroy asked Blue. Blue said he was. “Then enjoy the next couple of days.”
McIlroy hopes he can do the same. And Mickelson wishes he’d had the opportunity.