Phil Mickelson struggles heading into British Open defense

Phil Mickelson plays out of a bunker by

Phil Mickelson plays out of a bunker by the 2nd green during a practice round at Royal Liverpool Golf Club prior to the start of the British Open Golf Championship, in Hoylake, England, on Monday, July 14, 2014. (Credit: AP)

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HOYLAKE, England - The champion returned, along with the Claret Jug, from which Phil Mickelson said Monday he didn't drink claret but various other "good stuff," including a bottle of 1990 Romanee Conti. That's a Burgundy, estimated cost $40,000.

"I didn't know what this was when I drank it," Mickelson said. "I just knew it was really good. And that was the best bottle ever put there."

The year of living joyously. Off the course.

But days away from the start of another British Open, this one at Royal Liverpool beginning Thursday, Mickelson arrived with a playing record considerably less joyful.

In the 12 months since his victory at Muirfield in Scotland, Mickelson has only two top-10 finishes, a sixth in the Barclays last August and a tie for second at Abu Dhabi in January.

"Obviously," he said of his game, "it hasn't been a good year. Normally I would be discouraged or frustrated, but I'm just not. I feel like I've had some good breakthrough in some areas. I just haven't had results."

Results are what matter, of course. On Sunday, Mickelson tied for 11th at the Scottish Open, eight shots behind Justin Rose. Rose now will attempt to duplicate Mickelson's 2013 double, winning that event and the Open back to back.

Mickelson turned 44 in June after the U.S. Open, in which he finished 28th, and it was pointed out that most pros begin to decline in their mid-40s. His strengths -- short game, putting -- have ebbed into weaknesses.

"I actually feel better than I have in years," he said. "I've had to work a little bit harder. I know [my age] would be the assumption, but I believe the next five years are going to be some of the best in my career."

Padraig Harrington is the last person to win back-to-back Opens in 2007-08, but the other day Mickelson said, "I think it's a lot easier to win it a second time than the first. It takes the pressure off and you already have the confidence and knowledge to do it again. And that's why I feel so good about winning last year."

Mickelson said he likes Royal Liverpool for the same reason he likes Muirfield: A ball hit 20 to 30 yards short of the green will bounce on, not in a crazy direction, as it would at many links land courses.

"What I'm ultimately saying is well-struck shots are rewarded," Mickelson said, "and poorly struck shots are penalized. That's not always the case in links golf."

Mickelson admits to watching replays of his victory. "Absolutely," he said.

Tiger Woods won the last time the Open was played at Hoylake, in 2006.

"He's also somewhat defending champion, given he was the last person to win here," Mickelson said of Woods, who missed four months because of back surgery.

"We all benefit from having him in the tournament. We are just glad he's back. Hopefully he'll play well."

Mickelson surely hopes the same for himself.

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