At 43, Phil captures British with best golf of career

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2013, 9:07 pm

GULLANE, Scotland – After capping the best round of his career with another birdie, and with both arms still thrust into the air, Phil Mickelson floated toward a misty-eyed Jim “Bones” Mackay.

“I did it,” Mickelson said, wrapping his arms around his trusty caddie of more than 20 years.

He had captured a major title in his 40s.

He had transformed his game to win the British Open.

He had rebounded from the most devastating loss of his career.

And he had done so with epic Lefty flair – with birdies on four of his last six holes for a 5-under 66 and a three-shot victory that cemented his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats, as a complete player.

“After you work with a guy for 21 years,” Mackay said near the clubhouse afterward, “it’s pretty cool when you see him play the best round of golf he’s ever played in the last round of the British Open.”

At 43, Mickelson says he’s playing and putting as well as he ever has, if not better. He’s managing his arthritis, and he’s as strong, fit and title-hungry as he was back in his days at Arizona State. “He really, really wants it,” Mackay said. “You can’t underestimate how much he wants to compete and do well.”

But Mickelson readily admits that even he had doubts, that he wasn’t sure that winning the Open was in his future. Doing so would require an evolution of his swing-from-the-heels style, adding an arsenal of shots to a Hall of Fame game that has already notched 40-plus wins on the PGA Tour.   

Each year he turns up at the Masters believing that he’s going to win. Same at the U.S. Open, where he is a record six-time runner-up. But over the years, the British Open has proved far more elusive. In his first nine tries at the Open as a pro, he finished no better than 11th.

“Of the four majors,” said his wife, Amy, “he hasn’t necessarily thought of himself as able to conquer this.”

That mentality began to shift in 2004 at Royal Troon, where after an opening 73 Mickelson shot three consecutive rounds in the 60s and fell one shot out of the playoff.

It was emboldened two years ago at Royal St. George’s, where he played a flawless front nine Sunday before being blown away late en route to a T-2 finish.

And it was reinforced, finally, during his playoff victory last week at Castle Stuart in firm-and-fast conditions.

“The big thing for Phil is that he’s learned to embrace links golf,” said his swing coach, Butch Harmon. “He learned how to put the ball down on the ground and play more under control.”

A few days ago, over breakfast, daughter Sophia asked her father:

If you’re at a course that is difficult for you, and if you’re not going to win, is it better to miss the cut and go home, or to keep trying to figure it out?

His answer: Always keep playing, especially in preparation for this major, because any chance to gain more experience in the elements, hitting and creating new shots, can help you learn how to win.

Sure enough, Mickelson was five shots down with 18 holes to go and still believed he could win, despite posting just a pair of top 10s in 17 previous Open appearances. In fact, before he kissed the family goodbye and left their rented house on Sunday, he told Amy: “I’m gonna go get me a claret jug today.”

Starting the day at 2 over, Mickelson made birdies on Nos. 9 and 13 to move back to even for the tournament, then reeled off birdies on 14, 17 and 18 to seal the three-shot victory over Henrik Stenson

Most impressive, however, may have been Lefty’s gritty par save on the 16th. His tee shot landed on the green about 20 feet short of the flag, but the ball kept creeping toward the front of the green and eventually rolled all the way down the left side. Assessing his options, he calmly told Bones, “I can get this up-and-down,” and, indeed, he clipped his pitch shot off the baked-out turf and sank a slippery 8-footer to stay one shot clear.

A hole later, Mickelson launched back-to-back 3-woods – that club, he says, has “altered my career” – on the par 5 and two-putted from 30 feet to take a two-shot cushion to the final hole. For good measure, his 6-iron from 185 yards gathered 10 feet behind the hole, and he buried the putt to punctuate “one of the best rounds of my career.”

Standing on the 18th green, Amy Mickelson compared the overwhelming emotions to the 2004 Masters, when Phil broke through after going 0-for-42 in golf’s biggest events.

“But this is a different kind of meaningful,” she said. “We were just staring at (the trophy), like, your name is on the claret jug. It’s very surreal, and I think it might be the most meaningful to him, because it’s the most unexpected.”

Not least because of what transpired five weeks ago at Merion.

It was Mickelson’s most crushing defeat in a career that has seen its share of high-profile flameouts. Late bogeys on 13, 15 and 18 that Sunday extended his own record of six runners-up at the year’s second major, the one he most desperately wants to win.

That close call hurt even worse than the ’06 Open at Winged Foot, where he didn’t truly expect to win, not after hitting only two fairways on Sunday.

For two days last month, Mickelson “didn’t really get out of bed,” Amy said. “Totally a shell (of himself). That’s not like him.”

Thankfully, on Wednesday after the Open, the Mickelsons were off to Montana for a planned vacation with four other families. Rafting. Zip lining. Fly-fishing. Archery. Every day was jam-packed with activities, meaning there was no time to mope or dwell on what could have been.

At that moment, Mickelson knew that his 2013 season was a critical juncture.

“It could have easily gone south,” he said, “where I was so deflated that I had a hard time coming back. But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career. And I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year, and some potential great play.”

After a missed cut at The Greenbrier, Mickelson was thoroughly impressive at the Scottish Open in winning in Europe for the first time in two decades. And now, after early rounds of 69-74-72, and a near-flawless Sunday performance, Mickelson joins the roster of Hall of Famers who have hoisted the claret jug at Muirfield.

“This is just a day and a moment that I will cherish forever,” he said. “This is a really special time, and as fulfilling a career accomplishment as I could ever imagine.”

Getty Images

McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

Getty Images

Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

Getty Images

Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

Getty Images

McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.