Within minutes of his unlikely victory at the Open Championship Phil Mickelson had already settled into his normal routine as the smartest person in the room.
Just as the media and masses were trying to digest Lefty’s Scottish Slam – victories in consecutive weeks on links courses – the man himself had already compartmentalized the claret jug and moved on to the next mountain.
“If I'm able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that's the sign of the complete great player. And I'm a leg away (U.S. Open). And it's been a tough leg for me,” he allowed in the moments following his Open triumph.
“There’s five players that have done that. And those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light. And if I were able to ever win a U.S. Open, and I'm very hopeful that I will, but it has been elusive for me. And yet this championship has been much harder for me to get.”
That kind of instant perspective is why Mickelson is among 2013’s top newsmakers. The truth is it’s why he’s always among the year’s top newsmakers.
His on-course play aside – an eclectic card in ’13 ranging from his brilliant performances at the Open Championship and Waste Management Phoenix Open to relatively lackluster starts at the Masters and throughout the FedEx Cup playoffs – it is Lefty’s keen sense for the dramatic that defies the golf world to look away.
He lipped out for a 59 in Round 1 at TPC Scottsdale, signed for a second-round 79 at Bay Hill and arrived at the U.S. Open, albeit a tad delayed following a red-eye flight on the eve of the opening round to attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter back home in Southern California, wielding a juiced up fairway wood and a dialed down game plan.
“I knew he wasn’t going to try to hit a driver, which as you know with Phil is a good thing because that means he doesn’t try to bomb the thing 400 yards,” swing coach Butch Harmon said as Mickelson set out on Sunday at Merion with a one-stroke lead.
Mickelson’s heartbreaking history at his national championship appeared to be headed for a new chapter when he holed out a wedge shot for eagle at the par-4 10th to take the lead. But he miss-clubbed at the 13th hole, failed to convert a birdie putt at the 16th and watched the award ceremony for the sixth time from the bridesmaid’s box.
There could have been a Merion malaise, an emotional lull after coming so close to the one championship he covets the most . . . again. And, to be honest, it’s not as though many outside Camp Lefty considered the Open Championship a viable option given the 43-year-old’s pedestrian record at the game’s oldest tilt.
In 17 trips across the Atlantic, Mickelson had just two top-10 finishes in the Open and before 2011, when he finished a distant second to Darren Clarke, the ancient links didn’t seem to be his brand of Scotch – all of which makes Mickelson’s fairytale fortnight in Scotland so significant.
He won the Scottish Open in a playoff and carded what many considered the most inspiring final round of the year – a 66 that was capped by birdies at the 71st and 72nd hole – at Muirfield to etch his name onto the claret jug.
“After you work with a guy for 21 years, 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,” an emotional Jim “Bones” Mackay said.
Who knew the man who was one good bounce away from an U.S. Open title at Winged Foot or Merion just needed the burnt and bouncy turf of Muirfield to put his career into a final approach to greatness?
Even as Mickelson’s play dropped off late in the season he continued to make headlines, announcing in September he was considering cutting his schedule by as much as 25 percent in future years “in an effort to play at a high level when I do play because I know that I’m not able to do it 25 weeks a year,” he said.
For Mickelson the scheduling makeover is an ode to the obvious. Next year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst marks the 15th anniversary of Lefty’s first near miss at the event when he lost to Payne Stewart on the Donald Ross gem.
It’s why, with his signature flare for the dramatic, Mickelson’s mind immediately raced ahead even as he waited adjacent the 18th green at Muirfield to accept the claret jug.
“I never knew if I would be able to win this tournament. I hoped and believed but I never knew it,” he said.
Muirfield was more than a victory for Mickelson, it was a seminal moment; and as is normally the case with Lefty, he figured it out long before the rest of us.
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