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.”