Lefty's Time: Mickelson arrives at Oak Hill feeling more confident than ever about his game

Phil Mickelson looks at himself differently these days.

Sure, there's a bit of uncertainty in the grogginess of morning, when he wakes up wondering if that claret jug really belongs to him for a whole year.

Then — yep — there it is, his name engraved on the silver chalice.

For Lefty, it's all gravy from this point on.

He feels complete.

"The British Open really changed some of my perception of myself as a player," Mickelson said Tuesday after a practice round at Oak Hill for the final major of the year, the PGA Championship. "Had I won another green jacket, that would not have done the same thing as what winning the claret jug has done."

Mickelson is a little over two weeks removed from one of the greatest closing rounds in major championship history, a 5-under 66 at rock-hard Muirfield to claim golf's oldest crown.

It was the leg of the career Grand Slam that always figured to elude him. His game was built for the target golf played in America, complete with an array of soaring drives and wondrous wedges.

But, over four days along the Scottish coast, Mickelson showed he could grind it out better than anyone on a tabletop of a course, imagining shots that go against everything he's supposed to be about — then pulling them off.

"In my mind, it is an accomplishment in my career that makes me more of a complete player," he said. "To finally have won that and break through and play some of my best golf ever in my final round, that kind of changes the way I view myself and my game, more so than just a major championship that I had already won."

Mickelson has already won the PGA Championship, back in 2005 at Baltusrol.

That's not to say he doesn't want to add a few more majors to a resume that already ensures he'll be remembered as one of the game's greatest players.

He's never been this confident about his chances.

"I'm more motivated than ever to work hard to succeed, because I can taste some of my best golf coming out," Mickelson said, his voice and demeanor just oozing confidence. "I can feel it."

At 43, he's already a man in full, complete with five major championships.

Only 11 golfers have won more.

But don't get him wrong — he's driven to complete a career Grand Slam, merely lacking a victory in the U.S. Open, where he's been the runner-up a record six times.

"I feel as though I started to play my best golf in the last four, five, six months," he said. "I feel like I've keyed in on two areas that I've struggled with for years, which is putting and off the tee. I feel very confident in my ability to get the ball in play off the tee, and I feel very confident in my ability on the greens now.

"I've turned weaknesses into strengths," he went on, "and this serves me well in major championships. I feel like now the major championships are possibly the easiest ones for me to be in contention and maybe even win."

At home in California, Mickelson had a practice facility built right in his yard, allowing him to work on shots when there's nothing on the line, no fans shouting his name.

"I enjoy walking out after dinner and hitting some putts and hitting some chips and hitting some balls," he said. "I find it very calming and very serene being out there doing what I've always loved to do."

He's still fending off the next generation, giving players who aren't even half his age a lesson in how this profession is supposed to work — on and off the course. If it means spending a good half-hour or more signing autographs after a practice round, as Mickelson did Tuesday for the throngs clamoring for a piece of him on a warm, sunny day at Oak Hill — well, that's part of the game, too.

"He's a guy that I've always looked up to, been a fan of," said 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. "I don't know anybody who is not a fan of Phil."

Well, maybe one.

When Tiger Woods was asked about their personal relationship, he danced around the question as much as possible before finally closing with a terse "it's been a lot of fun." Mickelson was more gracious, conceding his record doesn't come close to matching Woods and those 14 major titles, marveling at his rival's remarkable consistency over a professional career that's approaching two decades.

"He's a great motivator for me. He's helped me work hard," Mickelson said. "He's helped me put forth the effort to try to compete at the highest level year in and year out, and I've loved competing against him. He's really brought the best out of me, especially when we've been paired together, and I hope that we are able to play together for many more years."

They're certainly not going anywhere at the moment.

While Woods is mired in the longest major drought of his career, he's won five times this year on the PGA Tour, is ranked No. 1 in the world, and is coming off a seven-shot victory at the Bridgestone. Mickelson is right behind him in the rankings, two exquisite players who have been the face of American golf for so long.

"I'm as motivated as ever to compete and to play and get the best golf out of me, to hopefully play against Tiger when he's playing his best," Lefty said. "That would ultimately be the goal — I play as well as I can at the same time he's doing the same.

"I would love that opportunity."


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963