Mickleson doesn't wilt amid Troon's challenges

— -- TROON, Scotland -- Phil Mickelson looked like he had gone through a car wash fully clothed. Or spent Friday in a carnival dunk tank.

He was dressed in all black -- black shoes, black rainsuit, black gloves -- appropriate attire, given the dreariness of the dark skies that sat fat and happy over this patch of west Scotland. For the better part of his nearly five-hour round, Mickelson had been doused by nature's garden hose. But now, at last, the spigot was off.

Mickelson began his second round of The Open as the leader and ended his round there too. But unlike Thursday, when he came within a lipped-out putt of making major championship history, Mickelson left Royal Troon with a 2-under-par 69. It wasn't historic, but considering the conditions, it was impressive.

"First of all, I really enjoy the challenge that this weather and these elements provide,'' he said as water collected at the bill of his hat. "I thought it was a good round to back up the low round ... I played kind of stress-free golf again.''

What? Enjoy the challenge ... stress-free golf?

This is The Open. There's nothing stress-free about it. You're supposed to age like time-lapse photography.

And who in their right mind embraces this weather other than ducks and umbrella makers?

It turns out that Phil does. Ever since 2004, when he  came to Royal Troon as a links course convert, Mickelson has fallen in love with The Open and its many wonderful quirks. If he bought into it any more, he'd wear a kilt on the course.

"That's where it really kind of turned for me,'' said Mickelson, who finished third in 2004, his first top-10 finish at The Open in 12 tries up to that point. "This is where I stopped trying to overpower the golf course, where I kind of accepted playing it as it's designed ... That's probably why I love it so much.''

Yeah, he's crazy about this place. He has shot five consecutive rounds in the 60s here (21 under par combined with just three bogeys). He says he likes Royal Troon's "straightforward'' nature.

A day earlier -- as the sun shone, the birds chirped, and the birdies fell -- Mickelson shot 63 and it could have, would have, should have been a record 62 had the golf gods permitted it.

Instead, as Mickelson noticed later when he watched replays, the ball's path was altered by something -- perhaps a pebble chip, a stubby blade of grass. Anyway, the putt veered slightly right at the last moment and skidded around the edges of the cup. It still hurts to watch.

"I couldn't figure out how it missed,'' Mickelson said. "Obviously it hit something. So it happens, unfortunately.''

You wondered how Mickelson would handle the disappointment of falling millimeters short of golf lore. He had said Thursday night that he wanted to cry over the lost 62. Would he arrive at the first tee box less than 15 hours later with a near-history hangover?

The answer was no. Mickelson didn't let the memories of a missed putt or the realities of wet weather ruin his second round. He grinded away in the cold rain and came out the other side with that functional 69 and a 1-shot lead over Henrik Stenson through 36 holes. Stenson's second-round 65 was, in many ways, comparable in quality to Mickelson's 63 from a day earlier.

Mickelson has become the un-Phil here. His driver spends a lot of time doing crossword puzzles and watching movies. Instead, Mickelson is using a 2-iron that he put in the bag specifically for The Open.

If you want, Mickelson also will explain how he has reduced the spin rate and launch angle on his shots in these Scottish conditions. It's fascinating stuff ... if you're a NASA engineer. For the rest of us, we'll just look at his scorecards.

Speaking of spin, Mickelson almost spun his tee shot on the par-3, "Postage Stamp" eighth for an ace. It stopped a roll, maybe two, from falling in. There was also a bunker save on the par-3 17th that deserves a TV special. And if you're keeping track, he didn't make his first bogey of the tournament until his 30th hole.

Mickelson last won a tournament -- any tournament, anywhere -- in 2013. That was The Open at Muirfield. Finishing second that year was ... Stenson.

Who knows what will happen next. Thirty-six-hole major championship leads and Mickelson don't often get along. He has had six of those leads throughout the years (either shared or solo), but only closed out the 2005 PGA Championship. And if you really want to go Negative Street, 36-hole Open leaders at Royal Troon have left with Claret Jugs only two of eight times.

None of this means Mickelson is doomed; it only means that he'll have to defy the odds. And he has a history of doing that. Remember, he was tied for 11th and 4 strokes back when he began his third round at Muirfield and erased a 5-shot deficit on Sunday.

Of course, he also has a well-documented list of major heartbreaks. Just off the top of your head, you can think of a half-dozen championships that Mickelson should have won.

He is 46 now. He says he's lighter (by 25 pounds) and in better shape than he has been in 10 years. He says he doesn't have to deal with the pressure of having never won an Open. And he says he's rooting for more crummy weather during the weekend.

But Mickelson is too smart to discuss the prospects of winning his sixth major.

"We've got a lot of work to do,'' he said. "We're only halfway done with the tournament.''

The fun half starts now.