GULLANE, Scotland – Muirfield has never failed to deliver, but this exceeded even this club’s historically lofty expectations.
The East Lothian links has a history of delivering Hall of Fame Open champions, from Nick Faldo (twice) to Jack Nicklaus. For the 142nd edition of golf’s oldest championship, however, the road to Phil Mickelson’s British breakthrough was littered with more twists and turns than a Scottish byway.
To put Mickelson’s victory in context, longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay choked back tears and summed up nearly two decades of frustration: “You work for a guy 21 years ... it’s cool when you see him play the best round of golf he’s ever played to win the British Open.”
Or swing coach Butch Harmon’s take. Harmon has now coached four different players to Open titles – call it the claret jug slam – and figured, “I tell people all the time in ’93 when Greg (Norman) won I thought the 64 he shot in the final round at Royal St. George’s was the best round of golf I’d ever seen played. I’m not too sure this round doesn’t top it because this golf course was so hard.”
And to think, Mickelson’s clinching 66, the best round of the week, was for much of the day an afterthought, a footnote tucked deep into most stories as Lee Westwood clawed his way to his first major and Tiger Woods tried to wrest himself off his Grand Slam slide and Adam Scott looked to add to his major collection.
It wasn’t until Lefty charged in a 25-footer at the 14th to move to 1 under par and within one stroke of Westwood that the golf world began to take notice. By the time he’d hammered “two of the best 3-woods of my career” down the windswept 17th fairway for a two-putt birdie, an Open title truly began to materialize.
Even Mickelson, who before 2011 had exactly one top-10 finish at the Open, admitted that his title chances seemed pretty slim until “about an hour ago,” he said as he was making his way to the 18th green to accept the claret jug.
After 19 tries, Mickelson’s moment came after starting the day five strokes back and for much of the outward loop he seemed destined for another also-ran on the ancient turf.
But one by one those ahead of him faltered and slowly fell away.
The first to fall was Woods, who may have considered the brown and bouncy links his best chance to collect major No. 15 since 2008. He three-putted the first and fourth holes for bogeys to fall three back and didn’t make a birdie until the 12th hole.
By then Woods’ chances to claim his fourth claret jug had been blown into the Firth of Forth.
“I could just never get the speed (of the greens) right today. We started on the first day and it progressively got slower. And that's usually the opposite at most tournaments. It usually gets faster as the week goes on, but this week it was different,” said Woods, who has now gone 17 majors without a victory. “Today I had a couple of opportunities to make a couple of putts and I left them short.”
Westwood, who has finished in the top three at every major, began the day with a two-stroke lead but bogeyed the third to crack the door and made back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 7 and 8 to drop into a tie with Scott and Henrik Stenson at 1 under. From there he continued to fade and closed with a 75 to tie for third.
By then, it was Scott’s championship to win following four birdies through five holes through the turn. The Australian, who blew a late four-stroke lead at last year’s Open, seemed poised to add his second major in three starts until he bogeyed four consecutive holes starting at the 13th.
“The disappointing thing is with this one I felt I wasted a little bit,” said Scott, who closed with a 72 to tie for third, four strokes back. “I would have liked to be in at the end and no one was, actually. It's a shame.”
Ian Poulter played his Sunday round like the Ryder Cup, not the claret jug, hung in the balance, charging through Nos. 9-12 in 5 under to move within two strokes of the lead, but the Englishman played his final seven in 1 over to finish in the group at 1 over.
Stenson, who tied for the lead with a birdie at the 11th hole, may have been the last man with a chance to catch Mickelson after going out in 34, but like the others the Swede’s title chances came apart with bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13.
“We know (Mickelson) is a world-class player and has been for many, many years,” said Stenson, who finished alone in second place at even par after a final-round 70. “So I don't think it took us by surprise, but it's still all credit to him for finishing the way he did.”
Perhaps, but before his torrid 32 on the inward loop – which included birdies at Nos. 13, 14, 17 and 18 – it’s doubtful that anyone outside of Mickelson’s inner circle believed he could make up that much ground under the circumstances.
Even after Mickelson’s victory last Sunday at the Scottish Open, which was played on a links course in the north, he seemed to be a bona fide longshot following a third-round 72.
After that round Mickelson retreated to the Muirfield practice tee for an impromptu session with Harmon and a pep talk.
“I said I thought even par or 1 under would win this thing and he said, ‘I’m doing better than that,’” Harmon said.
It was a dramatic change of fortune for a player that in his first 17 Open Championships had more missed cuts (four) than top 20s (three). The transformation began in 2011 when he tied for second behind Darren Clarke at Royal St. George’s and took another step forward last month when he ditched his driver for a strong 3-wood.
The result at Merion was another runner-up finish at his national championship and although his ball-striking at Muirfield wasn’t flawless, he tied for 37th in the field in fairways hit (34 of 56) and 27th in greens in regulation (46 of 72), it was good enough. Particularly the way he putted for three days.
Only six players took fewer putts than he did (117) and Lefty had just three three-putts for the week on greens that, at least for the first three days before the R&A let the water hoses loose, were baked to a brownish hue by unseasonably hot weather and dry winds.
It was only apropos that Mickelson completed his comeback with a bold 6-iron into the last and a 12-foot birdie putt to finish at 3 under and three strokes clear of the field. After 19 years of trial and mostly error in the United Kingdom, the one title that always seemed out of his grasp was his.
“I never knew if I could win this tournament,” said Mickelson, the first player to win the Scottish Open and Open Championship. “I hoped and believed but never knew it.”
After Sunday’s 66, Mickelson made everyone a believer.<