LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Remember February, when Phil Mickelson flogged Tiger Woods by 11 strokes in a head-to-head Sunday at Pebble Beach Golf Links?
Their worlds and games have gone in opposite directions since and half a world away on another west coast links starkly illustrated that.
Woods threw a roundhouse fist pump on 18 Friday after holing out his only bunker shot of the tournament to leap into third place entering the weekend in the 141st British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Mickelson repeatedly shook his head and was lost for answers after a brutal 78 left him ahead of only eight players in the 156-player field.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know what to tell you,” Mickelson muttered five times in a brief interview before jetting home to try to find a fix for his worst streak of golf in a decade.
All the things Woods has spent avoiding for two days with a very precise strategic game plan that has him poised to end a four-year drought of major victories, Mickelson found in abundance at Lytham with repeated visits to bunkers and unplayable lies.
Officially it was Mickelson’s ninth consecutive PGA Tour round over par and erased whatever positive steps seemed gained by a couple brilliant rounds at the Scottish Open last week.
“I putted poorly and I drove it horrific and the chipping was below average … I hit it terribly,” said Mickelson.
Aside from that? Really, Mickelson rarely has looked more lost at a major. He tried pleading at one point Thursday for a ruling that he should be able to see his golf ball. He held his hands up to rules officials like he was at gunpoint, telling them to do what they had to do to sweep rough back over his found ball.
He made three doubles on Friday including back-to-back on 13 and 14 as careened to a six-over freefall on his closing six holes.
“I thought I was going to have a little bit of a better round than I did,” he said.
“It certainly got away from me the last six holes.
“The last two months have been pretty poor to play and I’m pretty frustrated. I need to get better for Akron and the PGA. I feel like I have some direction for the next week but I have a way to go. The scores are just so far off.”
After hitting only 12 fairways and 15 greens in 36 holes, Mickelson said he planned to hook up with swing coach Butch Harmon next week to “see if I can get in a better frame of mind for the next two months because we have got some big tournaments and I have a lot of work to do in the next 10 days to be ready.”
Woods, on the other hand, went right to work for a half hour on the Lytham range with swing coach Sean Foley just honing the irons and fairway woods he’s utilized to carve up the bunker-infested links.
Not until the 18th hole Friday did Woods ever find one of the 206 bunkers, and he holed it in front of the packed grandstands for the kind of flourish known in the past to send shivers up his challengers.
“One-for-one,” Woods said with a wink of his sand play.
“That was probably the best shot he hit of the day,” caddie Joe LaCava said of the approach on 18 that leaked into the bunker. “The wind just switched.”
Woods never got tempted to shift from his meticulous game plan even as leaders Brandt Snedeker and Adam Scott were separating themselves from the rest of the field.
“I figured I had a game plan that I thought would fit well on this golf course, and I figured I could execute it,” said Woods, who has hit as little as a 6-iron off the tee on the par-4 16th hole and didn’t pull his driver out on either of the par-5s Friday. “And I’ve done that so far.”
LaCava said Woods has been steadfast in his tactics.
“He’s patient, he’s going to always stick to it,” said LaCava. “He’s not going to get impatient. He’s 74 (wins) and 14 (majors) for a reason. He’s got a game plan and he’s going to stick to it.”
Why would he?
Woods has hit 92 percent of the fairways (26 of 28) and 80 percent of the greens (29 of 36) in shooting consecutive 67s with only one bogey each round on the two occasions he missed the fairways.
“I’m hitting the ball in the fairway, and that’s the thing around this golf course, you just have to do that,” Woods said. “You can’t control it out of the rough here. And obviously the pot bunkers you can’t do anything but come out sideways. So it’s demanding. You can take your chances but you’d better pull it off or be conservative and play to different spots.”
In only five months since Mickelson crushed Woods at Pebble, the rivalry has reverted to the one-sided ways of the old days.
While Mickelson tries to find it, Woods is trying to finish it for his fourth Open title and 15th major.
“Overall I’m very pleased at where I’m at,” said Woods, who is just four off Snedeker’s lead and three behind Scott. “We’re at the halfway point and I’m right there in the mix. With the weather that’s forecasted on Sunday and (the third round), it’s going to be a good weekend.”