Hawks Nest: Mickelson's brilliance outshines Woods, Westwood


Nothing beats a big old blast of hyperbole in the dead of summer, just to remind us that some hot air is actually quite cool. Phil Mickelson is seen leaving Merion General Hospital with his ego in a sling and pieces of his heart falling out of his back pocket. He flies over to the Land of Warm Beer and wins his fifth major title with a performance longtime caddie Jim Mackay calls the “best round I’ve ever seen him play.”

Lefty birdies four of the last six holes at Muirfield, which is like striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and whoever else Carl Hubbell fanned that day in 1934. Now that he’s won a British Open, Mickelson can cross that one off his bucket list. Next up? Get a haircut.

Not that you can measure such things, but the Home of Golf has become the home of golf’s best major-championship storylines. A couple of those Sundays lit up the bummer meter – Tom Watson coming so close in 2009, Adam Scott last year – but deep plots don’t always come with a bouquet of roses.

Padraig Harrington’s back-to-back British Open wins were thrillers. Both came over a notable co-star scorned by history: Sergio Garcia in ’07, Greg Norman in ’08. Darren Clarke’s victory at Royal St. George’s (2011) leaned hard on the feel-good theme; so other than the Louis Oosthuizen rout three years ago, we’ve been getting our money’s worth.

This one? I’m almost out of breath, but I’ve only written four paragraphs. You want someone who leaves it short? Go talk to Tiger Woods.

BEST ROUND EVER. Three very big words, but when a man as intelligent as Mackay speaks, I either grab my notebook or tell my kids to shut up so I can hear the television. This time, however, I did neither. Instead, I called my numbers guru in Orlando, a young man named Reed Burton, a research guy at Golf Channel and one of the sharpest minds I’ve had the pleasure of stealing from.

If you’ve won five majors, you’ve obviously played a lot of good golf in your life. Was the 66 Mickelson fired Sunday to win by three strokes better than his final round at the 2004 Masters – the day he yanked Magilla Gorilla off his back and stuffed him in a trash can? It’s easy to look at something that happened nine years ago and think it has been eclipsed by a more recent accomplishment. Especially when recent just happened.

That was a big one, folks. Philly Mick’s first major. Five birdies on the final seven holes at Augusta National to beat Ernie Els by a stroke. “Both were fantastic rounds under incredible pressure on a very difficult golf course, but the two rounds were very different,” Burton says. “Almost like opposite sides of the same coin.”

In ’04, Mickelson shared the 54-hole lead with Chris DiMarco, then shot 38 on the front nine. Those five late birdies made for one of the most dramatic finishes the game has ever produced, but when he got to the scoring trailer, it still added up to 69 – no lower than his leap for joy after the birdie at the 18th. In fact, Els and Garcia both posted better numbers on a day when the field scoring average was 72.55.

At Muirfield, Lefty became just the seventh British Open champ since 1892 to enter the final round trailing by five strokes or more. You need help from above to overcome such a deficit, and Mickelson got it by virtue of Lee Westwood’s 75, but his 66 was a whopping 7.21 strokes better than the final-round average. It also matched low round of the week, which is extremely rare on Sunday at a major.

In other words, it’s not even close. The Muirfield fury was considerably stronger than the fireworks-filled finish in ’04. So good that Mickelson took late dramatics out of the equation – turns out he might have won without those two final birdies.

BURTON AND I would ultimately get into a discussion about Mickelson’s fascinating career: a mix of highs and lows that have seemed to catalyze one another throughout the years. In 2007, for instance, Philly Mick ended his relationship with swing coach Rick Smith after driving the ball poorly at the Masters – an extension of the long-club issues that killed him on the 72nd hole at the U.S. Open 10 months earlier.

He immediately began working with Butch Harmon, and just as quickly, Lefty righted himself. After contending deep into Sunday in Dallas and Charlotte, Mickelson won The Players Championship. Upon the completion of 2003, probably the worst year of his career, Mickelson bore down in the offseason and came out blazing, winning the Bob Hope in his first start of ’04, then amassing six top-10s in his next seven starts before winning the Masters.

A lot of people laughed in the spring of 2006, when Mickelson added a second driver to his bag the week before the Masters. Chuckle, chuckle? Lefty won in Atlanta by 13 strokes, then claimed the second of his three triumphs at Augusta National seven days later. Seven years later, Mickelson did it again at Castle Stuart and Muirfield.

It really doesn’t matter that Castle Stuart, home of the Scottish Open, isn’t an official PGA Tour event. Binges of brilliance amid stretches of insignificance. Ladies and gents, that’s Philly Mick in a 12-ounce can.

RARELY DO I waste my energy analyzing the telecast of a golf tournament or the people who talk during those live telecasts. Having done TV for four years, most of it on one studio show, I greatly appreciate the challenges of such a job and the utter impossibility of pleasing every viewer. Like any golf fan, I have my favorites.

There also is an obvious conflict of interest involved, but as the term “unforced error” gets used more and more, I feel compelled to file a complaint. “Unforced error” is tennis jargon, and the last thing golf should be doing is mimicking tennis. Secondly, “unforced error” refers to a clearly defined opponent (on the other side of the net) sending back a shot that should be easily handled but is not.

In golf, the ball isn’t moving. You could call the course an “opponent,” but it really isn’t. It is simply the playing field. When the wind is blowing 15 miles per hour, the fairways are “biscuit brown” and the greens are in no mood to receive a tour pro’s 7-iron – when 8 over after 36 holes gets you to the weekend – “unforced error” is an unforced error when it comes to analysis.

OK, I’m feeling better now.

CALL ME A moron – some people need no prompting – but I really thought Lee Westwood would finally get it done at Muirfield. A two-stroke lead going into Sunday, but just as significantly, the way he holed several big putts down the stretch Saturday, led me to believe the man’s time had finally arrived.

A closing 75 and Mickelson’s great round killed Westwood’s bid to become un-major-less, and this armchair psychologist wonders if the pressure of being a top-tier British sportsman comes with a high competitive price. We saw it most notably with Colin Montgomerie, something of a Scottish-English mix.

When the going got tough, Monty turned into cherry Jell-O. His sordid U.S. Open history isn’t quite as famous as Mickelson’s, but it’s close. Westwood has a different personality, both on and off the course, than Montgomerie, but exteriors can be deceiving. Somewhere underneath, the duck paddles furiously.

The British are so passionate, at times even desperate, when it comes to their sports heroes. Tennis star Andy Murray felt the breath on his neck for years. If Monty is the best player of the modern era never to win a major, Westwood, so to speak, is trying to catch him.

Maybe I’m grasping – or maybe the claustrophobia has him gasping.

FOR ALL THE Tiger stats we’ve been fed over the last week or so, for all the hemming, hawing and guffawing over his inability yet again to win a 15th major, I have a few thoughts that add up to nothing more than reasonable observations from a fair distance:

Can you ever remember Woods looking so perplexed by the speed of the greens in the final round of a major? I’m talking about animatedly puzzled. I don’t care if they dumped a bucket of peanut butter on every putting surface, then rolled them in chocolate icing. Whatever happened to the Woods who made such great adjustments on the competitive fly?

Red Shirt’s misery from the start of Sunday’s final round was obvious. He had the profanity going very early. After complaining about the slower greens Saturday evening, there was no indication that he altered his stroke. Again, Tiger at 80 percent of his peak effectiveness is still better than a vast majority of his fellow competitors, as we’ve seen over and over, but the woe-is-me thing at majors? It’s kind of new – and getting old fast.

If you ask me, Mickelson won the 142nd Open Championship because he converted two 6-foot par saves early in the round, then got up and down from a difficult spot Sunday at the par-3 16th. He’d struck what looked like a perfect tee shot, maybe 25 feet below the pin, but it tracked backwards and tumbled down the false front, leaving him a pitch from about 25 yards.

The microphone on the tee picked up Lefty’s response – more bemusement than bewilderment – and he proceeded to go about the business of making a 3. Every player dealt with weird, unfairish stuff the entire week. Muirfield was links golf under the influence, so to speak, and Johnny Law was the leaderboard.

Mickelson didn’t let it get to him. His healthy attitude was a byproduct of sheer resiliency, which generated the determination to finish off the finest round of his career in style. ESPN analyst Paul Azinger, meanwhile, pointed out something I’ve been saying on my live chats for a while: Woods’ pronounced body language suggests golf has become a chore.

Pardon my French, but I’d call such behavior an unforced error.