Keeping Score

How Phil Mickelson Charged to the British Open Championship

A final round 66 gives Mickelson his first Open win

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Phil Mickelson of the United States holds the Claret Jug after winning the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield on July 21, 2013 in Gullane, Scotland.

A trip across the Atlantic washed away a nightmare for Phil Mickelson.

Just five short weeks ago, sports fans turned their eyes to Merion, to the U.S. Open on Father’s Day, where everything teed up for Mickelson. The doting dad, who took a red-eye back across the country the morning on his first round so he could watch his daughter’s 8th-grade graduation — and shot a 67 — had a one-stroke lead going into the final round of the major that slipped through his fingers so many times before. Oh yeah, it was his 43rd birthday, too. The Philly crowd was completely behind him — they sung “Happy Birthday” to the point of irritation.

But he blew it again. Mickelson coughed away his advantage, allowing Great Britain‘s Justin Rose to win his first major. If only he hit one of those putts that just refused to fall. Afterwards, Mickelson couldn’t conceal his disappointment. Ashen, he addressed the press. “I just keep feeling heartbreak,” he said. Next up for Phil, the British Open, where he’s rarely contended. Yup, O.K., whatever. Let’s talk about Tiger’s chances at Muirfield.

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They looked swell going into the Sunday’s final round. He trailed Great Britain’s Lee Westwood by just two strokes. And how about Westwood? He’s always hanging around the majors. Westwood had to be due. And if he held on, we sure as hell would be talking about Britain’s sporting empire. Imagine: almost a year removed from the London Olympics — which were a smashing success for the home team — we’d have Andy Murray as the reigning Wimbledon champ, a Brit taking the last two golf majors — Rose at the U.S. Open, Westwood at, simply, the Open, no modifier needed. Not to mention two straight British Tour de France champs, Bradley Wiggins last year, and this year Chris Froome, who was set to sip champagne on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.

Alas, Great Britain wouldn’t have it this good. Westwood couldn’t find the fairway. Aussie Adam Scott, the Master’s champ, had his belly-putter sputter. Tiger goddamned his way around Muirfield, during another major meltdown. At this point, these poor performances are a pretty serious issue. Tiger Woods will have to overcome huge mental blocks to win his first major championship in more than five years. If I had written that in July of 2008, how loudly would you have laughed, and said “idiot.”

As for Phil, well, he was hanging around at this year’s Open, at five strokes back going into Sunday. And he did win that Scottish Open tuneup last weekend, showing he was finally more comfortable on the links courses. And he did finish second at the Open two years ago. But to believe he’d make that charge and actually win this thing? That was a leap of faith.

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In some ways, Mickelson’s sensational final round 66, which won him his first British Open, and fifth major overall, made perfect sense. Why is this guy so popular? Because you can’t predict his behavior. He’ll pull out a driver when he doesn’t need it, like he did at the 72nd hole during his infamous 2006 U.S. Open collapse at Winged Foot, and cost himself the title. Then he’ll leave the driver out of his bag at Merion, when he absolutely needed it on the 72nd hole, to have any shot of forcing a playoff against Rose.

And on Sunday, when so many people anticipated a Woods-Westwood showdown, Mickelson will have one of the best rounds of his career. Dan Jenkins of Golf Digest, who has been covering golf since Eisenhower, wrote on Twitter: “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.” He ranked it up there with Jack Nicklaus‘ legendary Masters final round in 1986.

He birdied the four of the last six holes. On the par-3 16, he left the tee shot way short, and the ball rolled off the green. You could picture Mickelson’s chances rolling along with it. But he chipped it close enough to the cup, to save par. His second shot on 17 was the turning point: on a par 5, he knocked it from the fairway to the green, giving him an eagle putt. He missed that, but birdied, giving himself a two-shot cushion over Scott. The 18th clinched it, as he curled his second shot inside a bunker on the left, and landed it on the green. He stuck a 10-foot birdie putt, and shared emotional hugs with his caddie and family, knowing that although Westwood and Scott and Woods were still on the course, it was all but over.

Mickelson smiled and gave those sheepish, everyman nods to the gallery, like he always does, through his heartbreaks and triumphs. Psychoanalyzing Phil is popular golf hobby — is all the good cheer an act? Why is he the people’s champion? Will he ever win that U.S. Open? But after the round of his life on Sunday, maybe it’s time to put all that aside. The guy is an all-time great. And he may have more crazy golf in him. What a win.

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