AKRON, Ohio – Phil Mickelson can’t stop smiling. The man with golf’s most ubiquitous grin hasn’t quit flashing those pearly whites since nine days and one continent ago. When inquired about the result of his Tuesday practice round match here at Firestone Country Club, the smile only dissipates slightly at the mention of a tough battle, then immediately reappears when he remembers the big picture.
“But you know what?” he says beaming. “I’ve still got the claret jug!”
You get the feeling Mickelson has delivered these words pretty frequently over the past week, not only in response to others, but as a reaffirmation to himself. As a man who has not only won five major championships, but found despair in even more, it only makes sense that he’d require a gentle self-reminder every so often that he really did win the one he always believed would elude him.
It makes even more sense if you listen to the story he revealed in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational interview room.
“I'm going to share something with you...”
Anytime a player of Mickelson’s caliber is about to reveal a secret, every ear in the room perks up.
“I had something happen to me Sunday morning of the U.S. Open that was really weird,” he continues. “When I woke up, I had dreamt that I had already won the U.S. Open, and so I had the same feelings and excitement that I had won. I finally won the U.S. Open. It was such a great feeling. And it took me over a minute to realize that I haven't played the final round and that I've got to go out and still do it.”
He didn’t, of course. Mickelson could only parlay the 54-hole lead into a sixth career runner-up result at the event, later calling it the most heartbreaking loss in a series of heartbreaking losses.
But that dream of finally winning it prior to the final round has led to him being a little gunshy in the aftermath of winning the Open Championship.
“Every day I wake up in the last nine days, honestly, I look at the trophy to make sure that I haven't just dreamt that, that I actually did win it and I already played the final round,” he admits. “It's just one of those little weird things that we all go through.”
Sure, we all may have dreams of winning a major, but most of ours don’t come true a month later.
And most of us don’t have the ultimate dream come true twice in one lifetime. There are some definitive ways of comparing and contrasting Mickelson’s first major win – the 2004 Masters – with his most recent one, each in itself the fulfillment of a figurative dream, if not a literal one.
“You can make a comparison in terms of the big picture,” explains Jim “Bones” Mackay, his trusty sidekick for the entirety of his professional career. “The ’04 Masters for me was great, but it was also a relief that he wasn’t going to have to answer that major question anymore. Now, a few majors later, the British Open this year, I think was a reward for how hard, at his age, he continues to work, because he works as hard at 43 as he did at 23.”
While Phil and Bones have worked in concert for more than two decades, occasionally a player and caddie will have a disagreement. This is one of those times. On Tuesday, each man was asked the following question:
When you look back 20-30 years from now on everything that’s been accomplished on the course, what is the one most indelible image or lasting memory?
Mickelson: “I think it will always be '04 Masters and showing off my Olympic jumping ability.”
Mackay: “It would definitely be his arms raised at the British Open. Without question.”
The disagreement doesn’t last long, as they each wax poetic on the recent win at Muirfield.
“For me personally, the British Open is the greatest accomplishment I could ever get in my career because of the shots that I had to learn and the challenge that it created for me over the course of my career,” Mickelson said. “It was so difficult for me to play my best golf in the British Open under those conditions than any other tournament that to win that is the greatest accomplishment for me in my career.”
“I was there in person and everything happened so fast,” Mackay added, “but when you go back and watch the highlights and you see his arms go up then you see everyone else’s arms go up in the grandstands, I find that to be pretty cool.”
It’s a nice problem to have, not being able to agree upon which major championship title will endure as the most lasting memory in a career.
For now, Mickelson will keep on smiling – and keep on reminding himself that winning the claret jug wasn’t just a dream. It was a dream come true.