Phil Mickelson ends links jinx with mesmerising display
Four birdies in the final six holes helps the American win the British Open title by three shots
The Mickelson family group hug is worth hallmarking. It is a precious thing, all happy smiling faces. Something to behold.
And no one had as broad a smile as the daddy. Phil Mickelson yesterday confirmed his status as one of golf’s greatest players – finally claiming a Claret Jug to add to his US Masters and US PGA titles in getting three-quarters of the way towards a career Grand Slam.
He did it with a mesmerising display of shot-making to capture the 142nd edition of the British Open championship.
And, yet, in the triumph over Muirfield’s parched and venerated links, all he wanted to do was to share. With his wife, Amy, who has battled breast cancer. With his daughters, Amanda and Sophia. With his son Evan. With his faithful caddie Jim Mackay, aka “Bones”. With his coach, Butch Harmon.
Cue group hugs and smiles (lots of them) and tears.
In this latest edition of golf’s oldest and most revered championship, Mickelson proved to be the daddy of them all. On a grey day that brought gloom to overnight leader Lee Westwood in his ongoing and so-far futile quest to claim a major, Mickelson – spurning a driver throughout – used an array of shots that once upon a time were alien to him as he mastered the links terrain.
Although introduced to links golf as long ago as 1991 when he was a member of the USA team that won the Walker Cup at Portmarnock, and an avowed disciple of the Lahinch links in Co Clare where he is an honoured lifetime member, Mickelson’s annual forays on to linksland in pursuit of the Open championship had proven to be a frustrating endeavour.
Why had it taken so long?
“It took me a while to figure it out, I would say. It’s been [only] the last eight or nine years that I’ve started playing it more effectively. But, even so, it was different than what I grew up playing. I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship,” said Mickelson, who shot a final round 66 – and numbered just 32 strokes on his homeward run as he birdied four of the last six holes – for a 72-holes total of 281, three-under-par, which left him three strokes clear of runner-up Henrik Stenson.
A week ago Mickelson had captured the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and arrived in Muirfield guarding what he called “a secret” to his putting.
On Friday last, though, he felt the need for a practice session with Harmon. “I did not strike it very well,” he said, having shot 74 in that second round. On Saturday he shot a 72. Yesterday it “all clicked” as he contrived to sign for a 66.
“I put the rhythm and the mechanics together and hit some great shots,” he said.
When it was all done, and Mickelson celebrated the moment with his family, he found his caddie shedding tears in the locker-room. “He was getting quite choked-up,” said Mickelson, before expanding: “This is really special for both of us. It’s a special moment to be part of the great history of this championship. It’s a great accomplishment for us as a team . . . . This has been the biggest challenge to overcome, [to] capture this trophy.”
Mickelson’s quest to land a Claret Jug had involved painstaking work with Harmon and his short-game guru Dave Pelz to adjust his game to play links. Yesterday the fruits of that labour brought the ultimate prize.
That the win came a month after suffering heartbreak in his own national championship only served to make it all the more fulfilling.
“You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it. And, after losing the US Open [at Merion, where Justin Rose won], it could easily have gone south. I was so deflated, I had a hard time coming back . . . I worked a little harder and, in a matter of a month, I’m able to change entirely the way I feel.”
Now Mickelson only requires to win the US Open to complete that career Grand Slam and join an elite club that features Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods. Only!
Ironically, the US Open, the championship, one that is probably the most suited to his game, has proven the hardest to claim. He has been runner-up six times, thwarted time and time again when the grand prize seemed to be his. Next year he will get the chance to make amends when the US Open is staged at Pinehurst No2, the same course where he won his US PGA title in 2005.
“I think that if I’m able to win the US Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that’s the sign of the complete great player. And I’m a leg away. And it’s been a tough leg for me. But I think that’s the sign. I think there’s five players that have done that. And those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light.
“If I were able to ever win a US Open, and I’m very hopeful that I will, but it has been elusive for me...” said Mickelson, tailing off and perhaps dreaming of where that would leave him in the roll of greatness.
Yesterday there was no doubting. He was great!