So Phil Mickelson has finally won an Open. Just not the one we thought he’d win.
One of the greatest rounds in major championship history gave Mickelson his fifth career major, and perhaps the most unlikely: Before Sunday, Mickelson had more career missed cuts at the Open (four) than top 10s (two) and had publicly expressed doubts whether he had the game to win golf’s oldest championship.
On Sunday, he had the game and then some.
Mickelson birdied four of the final six holes at tough, unyielding Muirfield for a three-shot win over Henrik Stenson, punctuating a stunning run to the Claret Jug with a double fist pump after his final birdie putt at 18 found the bottom of the cup. Mickelson’s 66, which was the low round of the day and tied for low round of the tournament, will take its place alongside Johnny Miller’s 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open and Jack Nicklaus’ 65 at the 1986 Masters among history’s greatest major final rounds, and given the conditions, it might have been a little better. Legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins, who’s been watching players win jackets, trophies and jugs for half a century, tweeted this: “That 66 by Phil is one of the greatest final rounds of a major on one of the most baffling courses I’ve ever seen.”
Leave it to Phil to bring the Muirfield monster to its knees. Those last six holes were pure artistry, and his last three should go in a time capsule:
• On 16, a perfect tee shot cruelly rolled off the front of the green, but Mickelson executed a brilliant up-and-down to save a critical par.
• On the par-5 17th, Mickelson smoked two perfect 3-woods to set up a routine two-putt birdie.
• On 18, with Lefty’s army of fans holding its collective breath remembering the Winged Foot meltdown in 2006, Mickelson hit a perfect drive, then striped a 6-iron to 12 feet and drained the putt for a cathartic back-nine 32 that erased some of those demons that had been piling up at Opens on both sides of the pond for two decades.
In his post-round interview, Mickelson was up-front about his ongoing love-hate relationship with links golf. “That relationship is minute-to-minute,” he said with a smile, adding that after what he called a “perfect” 6-iron at 16 rolled off the front of the green, “Love was not what I felt.”
But Mickelson erased any lingering doubts about his links mettle with his birdie at the par-5 17th. “Those two shots were very risky,” he said of his back-to-back 3-woods that left him with a two-putt birdie. “I had to take on those bunkers, and the worst rough on this course is on 17 short of the green.”
That hole was Exhibit A for a legendary round of ball-striking. Mickelson’s only bogey came on No. 10 and was promptly erased by that six-hole sprint to the finish.
Mickelson has often talked the talk, citing quality preparation and control of his game heading into majors only to see it all crumble with ill-timed miscues. But he exhibited a level of control all week that was unprecedented in his roller-coaster career. “I’m playing some of the best golf of my career,” he said after adding the Open to his Scottish Open triumph the previous week, a rare tartan-clad two-fer. “It’s the best I’ve ever putted.”
Lefty now holds three legs of the career Grand Slam, and we’ll see if the golf gods will ever relent and allow him to add a U.S. Open, where’s he posted six agonizing runner-up finishes. “If six seconds counted as a win, I’d have all four of them,” he joked.
In the end, a day that started as a Lee Westwood coronation ended with Mickelson cementing his place among history’s greatest players.
“This is a day I’ll remember my entire life,” Mickelson said. At that moment, he spoke for all of us.
The Twitter reaction
Phil’s colleagues were quick to take to Twitter to congratulate Lefty. Here’s a sample:
“Great playing Phil Mickelson.” — Ian Poulter, whose final-round 67 had been the round of the day until Lefty’s heroics.
“66 from Phil today is ridiculous. Best golf I’ve ever seen. #boss” — Keegan Bradley, Mickelson’s Ryder Cup protégé
“So pumped for Phil right now!” — Rickie Fowler
• “Fitting that Phil destroyed holes 13-18 today to win the Claret Jug, while that same stretch destroyed most players hopes all week.” — 2010 champion Stewart Cink
• How tough was Muirfield? Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker were the only two players in the field to shoot two rounds in the 60s. Sneds’ second-round 79 prevented him from contending, but aside from a disastrous second-nine 43 on Friday, Snedeker played 4-under golf.
• The win moves Mickelson to No. 2 in the World Golf Ranking, behind only Tiger Woods. Tiger and Phil, 1 and 2. Seems like old times. But they’re going in opposite directions. While Mickelson was shooting his 66, Woods limped to another disappointing major finish, shooting a final-round 74. In his last seven majors, Woods is plus-23 in his weekend rounds, and his four scores at Muirfield got progressively worse. Didn’t the guy used to own Sunday like the Man Upstairs?
• The last eight winners at Muirfield are legendary Hall of Famers, all: Mickelson , Els, Faldo, Watson, Trevino, Nicklaus, Player. Only one name conspicuously absent from that list.
• Mickelson tied 2011 winner Darren Clarke for the slowest to win his first Open Championship: Both won in their 20th Brtish Open start.
• The Open has become the major of choice for geriatrics: The last three winners are Mickelson (43), Ernie Els (42) and Darren Clarke (42).
• Lefty’s longtime caddie Bones Mackay was almost as happy as his boss. “When you work for a guy for 21 years, and you watch him play the best round of golf he’s ever played, it’s pretty cool,” he said.
• Woods let a few choice expletives fly with microphones nearby, but there were no fireworks between Woods and his former caddie Steve Williams, on the bag for Woods’ playing partner Adam Scott. The two exchanged a cordial handshake on the 18th green, and Woods responded to Williams’ comment with a sincere “Thanks, man.”
• Perennial bridesmaid Lee Westwood shot a disappointing 75, one of the worst rounds among the leaders. But Mickelson’s win at 43 has to provide incentive to the 40-year-old Westwood to keep grinding. Lefty’s won two majors since turning 40.
• Mickelson pulled off the rare feat of starting as many as five shots behind and winning by three or more, joining Justin Leonard (1997 British Open) and Nick Faldo (1996 Masters).
• Mickelson’s major ledger now includes five wins, eight seconds and 7 thirds.
• American players have now won 12 of the last 17 Open Championships.