By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist
Adding the Claret Jug to Phil Mickelson’s entourage might have turned up the smack level with his closest friends.
When Keegan Bradley double-checked their Tuesday tee time at Firestone Country Club, where he captured last year’s World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Bradley couldn’t resist a jab at the newly crowned British Open winner.
“I said, ‘I know you’re champion golfer of the year, but I’ll teach you how to play Akron if you want,’ ” Bradley said. “He only responded with, ‘I won there when you were 9 years old.’ ”
Mickelson’s only triumph at Firestone came in 1996, during a run from 1995-2000 when he finished no lower than fourth. His best result on the South Course since was a tie for fourth in 2008, with 36th his average finish.
But after hearing and seeing the confidence that flowed from Mickelson on Tuesday, anything seems possible the rest of the year.
His stunning triumph at Muirfield “nine days ago,” as Mickelson was quick to point out, might invite reminiscing about the greatest round of his life. But Mickelson, 43, has pushed that aside to focus on this week’s Bridgestone Invitational, next week’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., and the four-event FedExCup playoffs, which begin Aug. 22.
Mickelson was so in command of the room, so intent on looking his questioners in the eye during his news conference, that he removed a large planter of flowers obscuring his view.
“Right now I’m playing as well as I ever have,” he said. “I want to make sure I stay focused this week and next week because I think there’s an opportunity to add to this year and make this year every bit as special as it can be. I’ve been playing some of my best golf the last few months. I’m excited about these upcoming events.”
Mickelson has two victories in 2013 on the PGA Tour (including the Waste Management Phoenix Open), along with the Scottish Open. He’s finished in the top three six times in 15 events and earned $4.86 million, surpassing his total in each of the past three years. He suffered a heartbreaking loss at the U.S. Open at Merion, only to rebound for his fifth major victory.
Mickelson is enjoying all the spoils of his triumph at Muirfield, including carrying the Claret Jug with him.
“It’s not like I’m going to leave it,” he said. “I’ll have some of my friends throughout these next couple of weeks drink out of it and have a picture of it. That’s a cool experience not many people get to do.”
Asked the indelible moment in his career he’ll most remember 20 or 30 years from now, Mickelson cited his victory in the 2004 Masters Tournament, where he showed off his “Olympic jumping ability” after snapping an 0-for-42 record in majors. But he said the British Open would come next because of his erratic performances that included just two top-threes and four missed cuts in 19 previous starts.
“The British Open is the greatest accomplishment I could ever get in my career because of the shots I had to learn and the challenge it created for me over the course of my career,” he said. “It was so difficult for me to play my best golf in the British Open under those conditions.”
As enthused as he is, Mickelson is looking ahead. He played at Oak Hill on Monday, working on strategy for the PGA Championship. Swing coach Butch Harmon is with him at Firestone. Mickelson’s wife and three children returned to San Diego after their British Open celebration, leaving Mickelson extra time to practice before they rejoin him next week.
Mickelson loves his ball-striking with his Callaway X Hot Prototype 3-wood, which he said is helping him hit more fairways. He believes his putting has improved since he installed a putting green at home. He shows no visible sign of his psoriatic arthritis.
Mickelson is just one U.S. Open victory away from his ultimate goal — a career Grand Slam. That could seem almost as daunting as what he just accomplished, considering he finished second for the sixth time in the U.S. Open last month.
Perhaps adding to his U.S. Open disappointment was a dream he had the night before the final round he thought was “a premonition.” He woke up that Sunday morning thinking he’d already won.
“It was such a great feeling,” he said. “I was looking for the trophy. It was like, ‘Where is it?’ And then it dawned on me where it was. It took me over a minute to realize that I haven’t played the final round and that I’ve got to go out and still do it.”
So now every day when he awakes, Mickelson glances over at the Claret Jug. It might serve as reassurance of his success, as affirmation of his talent, but also as encouragement for what lies ahead.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.