HOYLAKE, England — As part of Phil Mickelson’s return to the United Kingdom as the defending British Open champion, he had to turn over the iconic claret jug to officials from the R&A. He described the transaction as difficult, because, he said, “It’s been a really fun year with the jug.”
Exactly how fun, no one knew until Monday.
“One of the things that I stressed is that we have to treat the claret jug with reverence and respect that it deserves,” Mickelson said, “and only put good stuff in it.”
One of Mickelson’s friends — unidentified to this point — decided the good stuff would be a bottle of 1990 Romanee-Conti wine, which the Web site wine-searcher.com values at somewhere around $20,000.
“I didn’t know what this was when I drank it,” Mickelson said. “I just knew that it was really good. And that was the best bottle that was ever put in there.”
Mickelson arrives at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, though, in search of his best stuff. Since winning the British at Muirfield — giving him three of the four majors, lacking only the U.S. Open — he is without a win. This year, in 17 tournaments worldwide, he has just one top-10 finish, none on the PGA Tour.
Yet at 44, he said he is confident in his game, even though his game has provided him with little evidence to support his attitude.
“I’m not frustrated and I’m not discouraged,” Mickelson said. “I feel like I’ve had some good breakthroughs in some areas. I haven’t had the results. I know I haven’t played well. But the parts feel a whole lot better than the whole right now.”
Mickelson will begin his defense at 2:05 p.m. local time (9:05 a.m. Eastern time) in Thursday’s first round with two-time Open champion Ernie Els and reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson, a threesome with 11 majors among them. He said he is just as motivated to pursue what would be his sixth major title as he was a year ago, before his final-round 66 brought him the right to drink whatever he wanted from the claret jug.
“The memories and emotions that took place last year, and that I created and will have for a lifetime, I’d like to do again,” he said. “. . . It almost motivates me to work harder and play even more, practice even more, because I know there’s a finite amount of time.”
No player older than 44 has won the British Open since Old Tom Morris in 1867. Roberto de Vincenzo and Harry Vardon were both slightly older than Mickelson is now when they took the claret jug in 1967 and 1914, respectively.
The International Golf Federation, which is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the world governing body for the sport, announced its qualification process for golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro 2016, and it means some top American players will be left home.
Players ranked within the top 15 in the Official Golf Ranking on July 11, 2016, will be eligible — as long as there are not more than four from a single country. Beyond that, the world rankings will be used to choose 60-player fields for both men and women, with no country gaining more than two slots. Peter Dawson, the head of both the IGF and the R&A, said if the current rankings were used, 35 countries would be represented in the men’s tournament, 33 in the women’s.
However, some deserving players will be left out. The United States is the only country with more than four players in the top 15 of the current men’s rankings. If the teams were picked today, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth would be eligible. Jim Furyk, Mickelson and Zach Johnson — ranked 11th, 13th and 14th — would not.
The R&A announced earlier this month an exemption into next year’s Open at St. Andrews for Tom Watson, a five-time winner, for what will presumably be his final Open at age 65. Watson is here this week in a dual role: competitor and Ryder Cup captain. And with that comes the question: Will he pick Tiger Woods for this year’s team?
“If he’s playing well, and he’s healthy, I’ll pick him,” Watson said Monday. “But then the caveat is, if he doesn’t get into the FedEx Cup [playoffs on the PGA Tour], what to do then? And that’s the question I can’t answer right now.”
Woods, for his part, missed the first two majors of the season following back surgery, and missed the cut in his only competition since. But he said in an interview last month that he absolutely wants to be on the Ryder Cup team.
“I would love to represent my country and play in that event and be with the guys,” Woods said at Congressional Country Club, site of the Quicken Loans National. “Once you’re a part of that team, you always want to be a part of that team. The team rooms are just so much fun. The amount of needling and camaraderie — we beat each other’s brains in 51 weeks of the year, and the one week we all come together and it’s unity.”