McClatchy-Tribune News Service
GULLANE, Scotland —
He finished with a flourish, with an exclamation point, not a comma; a fist pump, not a wave. It could have been one of those backing-in victories we see so often in major golf tournaments.
But it wasn’t.
A two putt for par would have been fine, enough to close the deal in this 142nd British Open Golf Tournament. But that’s not Phil Mickelson.
Don’t-hold-back Phil didn’t hold back.
Just winning is enough for most. Mickelson won by three.
“It’s the way I’ve played my entire career,” he said later. “I’ve always tended to go out and get it. Today, I did.”
He stroked the putt gently, as one must from above any of the holes on this wonderfully devilish Muirfield course. He had read it perfectly. It started right, turned smoothly left and was dead on line and two feet away when Mickelson knew. His arms flew into the air and the emotion rolled up through his throat and into his eyes.
The putt dropped and the tears began.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Mickelson had won four major championships before — three Masters and a PGA — and had kicked away a half-dozen U.S. Opens.
But the British? Are you kidding? Not his stuff. Not his style.
The British is more for grinders than stylists. Most often, the guy with the weathered skin and the best rainsuit takes the Claret Jug home. You don't float shots in here. You don't spin them back. You ram them over traps or muscle them out of knee-high grass.
On a comfortable and overcast Sunday afternoon, with several thousand Brits surrounding the 18th green in bleachers and behind ropes, they handed Mickelson the coveted trophy and he told them he was “proud to be their champion.”
He also told them this was special because, “I didn't think I was equipped.”
Mickelson is a California guy. It’s not that he’s a wimp. His roots, surroundings, are different.
The only similarity between his San Diego golf and Muirfield’s links, is that there is an ocean nearby. His ocean is the Pacific, blue and pretty, everything around it warm. Muirfield’s is the North Sea, with its biting winds and stormy days. That’s on a good day.
Maybe it helped that Scotland’s weather was unusually mild all week. Maybe Mickelson felt more comfortable.
Lee Westwood, leader by two shots going into Sunday’s final 18 holes, joked Saturday that, while he had recently moved his family to sunny Florida, he hadn’t figured he was doing it “to acclimatize myself for a British Open in Scotland.”
Weather probably had little to do with what Mickelson did here. His incredible golf skills simply found new magic.
“Today was as good as I can play,” he said. “It was one of my best rounds ever.”
The putt on the final hole put the cork in 18 holes of the finest wine. He started the day two over par and ended it three under. That’s a 66 on a course that seldom allows those. He birdied four of the last six holes. It was masterful, storybook stuff. The greatest players in the world dream about days like this and seldom get one.
There were challengers behind him. Tiger Woods was struggling but still grinding, still hoping for one of those miracle shots that have keynoted his career. Westwood was there, with the energy of an entire British kingdom, willing him along. Adam Scott, the Masters champion freed of all that best-player-to-never-win-a-major tension, had propelled himself into the lead for awhile.
They all had time, a few holes left, some hope. Had Mickelson’s final putt slid by for a little tap-in par, the door would have still been open a crack.
But when it rolled into the middle of the cup, the Claret Jug had been claimed. Mickelson had to wait, but not for others to challenge, just to finish. They were already beaten.
The separate walks down No. 18 for Woods and Westwood, the two most touted starting the day to battle it out for the title, were mere ceremony. Smile sheepishly, wave the cap in genuine gratitude for the fans’ support, and slip away as quickly as possible.
This was Mickelson's time.
The disbelief that a guy age 43 — oldest to win this since Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967 at age 44 — had won in his 20th try after stumbling around links courses and hating them for years, was only part of the story. That he had won his first-ever links event just last week, in the Scottish Open a couple hours north of here, was another part.
Perhaps the biggest amazement was that this came on the heals of yet another Sunday fade at last month's U.S. Open at Merion in Pennsylania.
Suddenly, Mickelson stands on the verge of history. With a U.S. Open victory to complete a career Grand Slam, he would stand alongside Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Woods, as well as pre-Masters-era winner Bobby Jones.
He has blown U.S. Opens by hitting trees, trying to clear sponsors’ tents, having mind fades.
“It’s been a tough leg for me,” he joked.
But when the perfect putt, with the perfect roll, reached its perfect ending, it was evidence enough that golf’s master of drama is not done yet.