Phil Mickelson’s victory at The Open proves you can teach an old dog new tricks

Paul Howarth
Phil Mickelson 300x225 Phil Mickelsons victory at The Open proves you can teach an old dog new tricks

Phil Mickelson with the Claret Jug

After winning the Open on Sunday, Phil Mickelson admitted he’d been unsure if he’d be able to “develop my game to play links golf.”  He added, “I never knew whether I would be equipped, have the shots, have the opportunity to do this.”  His victory at Muirfield, then, is testament not just to Mickelson’s brilliance but also evidence of an ability to adapt, of a willingness to sideline his natural game.

Mickelson’s coach, Butch Harmon, thought it the best round of golf he’d seen.  “It took him [Mickelson] a long time to understand how to play links golf,” said Harmon.  “Phil plays very aggressive, but you can’t do that with links golf.  He just embraced how to play on links.”

Which other figures from the world of sport have fundamentally changed their game to achieve success?

Steve Waugh – put that hook away

When a young Steve Waugh first emerged onto the international scene, it was as an aggressive, wicket-to-wicket, medium-pace bowler who was also a bit of a dasher in the middle order.  This was the role he fulfilled to such good effect in Australia’s 1987 World Cup win.

Then came two defining moments in Waugh’s career.  Firstly, back problems limited the number of overs he could bowl so that, eventually, he was forced to become a specialist batsman.  Secondly, he took the extraordinary decision to eliminate the hook and pull shots completely from his repertoire.  His reasoning was that the gains to be had from these shots were out-weighed by the potential to get out.

Cold, clinical, almost actuarial in his risk analysis.  Perhaps not surprising for a man who coined the term “mental disintegration” when describing how to destroy opponents.

And of course it worked.  Waugh has been described as Australia’s greatest cricketer after Sir Donald Bradman (a man who, incidentally, scored an absolute mountain of runs with exactly the shot that Waugh eschewed).  He arrived in England for the 1989 Ashes tour with a modest Test average of about 30.  When he packed it in in 2004, that average had climbed to over 51 and he was seen by many an armchair fan as the man you’d choose to bat for your life.

As captain, he presided over the incredible 16-match winning streak that Australia compiled between 1999 and 2001 and his overall win record as skipper was only surpassed in 2009 by Ricky Ponting.  But it was his batting that defined the man.  He remains the only player to have scored 150 in an innings against each of the Test-playing nations – something he may tell you wouldn’t have been possible if he’d kept playing that pesky hook shot.

Big Buck’s – fortune intervenes on the path to greatness

If Big Buck’s had not unseated jockey Sam Thomas at the final fence of 2008’s Hennessy Gold Cup, it’s unlikely we would have seen the greatest hurdler of this generation.  But then again, as my dad is fond of saying, “If my auntie had balls, she’d be my uncle.”

On that fateful day at Newbury, 29th November 2008, Big Buck’s could have become a leading contender for the biggest staying chases, including the Gold Cup at Cheltenham the following March.  Instead, following his spill, connections decided to give the gelding a spin back over the smaller obstacles to reinstate any confidence that might’ve been knocked out of him.

He won at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day (beating future Grand National hero Don’t Push It into second) and so trainer Paul Nicholls sent him back there at the end of January for Festival Trials Day.  This time, Big Buck’s came up against the highly touted Punchestowns from the Nicky Henderson stable.  Once he’d dispatched that rival by four lengths, Nicholls and owner Andy Stewart weren’t for turning back.  Sure enough, their charge won the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March (at the barely believable price of 6-1) and the rest, as they say, is history.

In all, Big Buck’s has recorded 18 straight victories over hurdles since his unseat in the 2008 Hennessy, including four World Hurdles and four Liverpool Hurdles at the Grand National meeting between 2009 and 2012.  Injury prevented him from defending those crowns last season but, at the age of 11 next year, he could come back for a last hurrah.  Not many will be brave enough to take him on.

Peter Ebdon – “scrape him off the table”

If Steve Waugh eliminated one offensive part of his game in the pursuit of excellence, then you might say that Peter Ebdon closed down his entire attacking instinct.

Ebdon was never a racing car of a player in the mould of a Higgins, White or O’Sullivan.  He did appear, though, to be one of a new breed coming through in the early ‘90s.  With his pony tail and fierce competitiveness, he looked like an unhinged croupier as he waltzed around the table.

Cut to a decade later and that burning competitive instinct had distilled itself into an extremely attritional style of play.  It was as if Ebdon had assessed the landscape and decided he wasn’t going to win much if he got involved in pure potting contests, preferring instead prolonged tactical affairs that would test his opponents’ mental strength.

On more than one occasion, Ebdon has frustrated Ronnie O’Sullivan.  In their 2005 World Championship clash, he took three minutes over one shot and five minutes to make a break of 12.  It did the trick, though, Ebdon coming through 13-11 having trailed 10-6.

He’s also one of a select band of players to have won both the World and UK titles.  No mean feat in the era of Higgins (the other one), O’Sullivan and Hendry.  Ebdon would no doubt insist that the end justifies the means; others have said you have to “scrape him off the table.”

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  • david13

    Don’t forget Jonah Barrington, who, already a two-times World Squash Champion (British Open was the ipso facto world title in those days) at the age of 28 in 1969 significantly changed his grip on the racket from, roughly, a “hammer” grip to a “handshake” grip (it took him months to adapt). He then went on to further glory, winning four more world titles.

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