Phil Mickelson and caddie Mackay a partnership for the ages

Together since 1992, last year’s British Open victory at Muirfield moved them to a new level

Phil Mickelson holds the Claret Jug with caddie Jim Mackay after the the American golfer’ had claimed victory in the 142nd British Open Championship at Muirfield on July 21st last year Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The golfer and the caddie were on a bucket-list course thousands of miles from home, two friends bonding over their shared affinity for the game and for competition.

A couple of years in planning, the outing, between Phil Mickelson and Jim Mackay, finally took place last week, the two converging on Trump International Golf Links before the Scottish Open for a match against Pádraig Harrington and his caddie, Ronan Flood.

Mickelson beamed last Wednesday as he recounted how Mackay’s scrambling prowess had allowed them to jump out to a commanding lead on their way to a 2-and-1 victory in the nine-hole match.

Phil Mickelson walks with his emotinally-overcome caddie Jim Mackay after scoring a birdie on the 18th green to secure victory in the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

A player and his caddie are like a lead singer and a backup vocalist. Separated by only a few feet when they are working, they move in different orbits.

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There is no question who the star is, but the most spine-tingling performances occur when the two are in perfect harmony.

Mickelson and Mackay have worked together for 22 years, an eternity in a peripatetic sport in which relationships, like the dimpled ball, are at the mercy of capricious winds.

Their union has thrived, but until last year's British Open, it was like a magic trick, with few paying much attention to how they had been able to pull it off.

“The reason we’ve lasted so long is because Phil is not a blamer,” Mackay said. “He knows no one is rooting for him harder out there than I am. So if I make a mistake or he makes a mistake, it doesn’t matter. He takes it all on himself.”

In the final round of last year's British Open, at Muirfield, their collaboration was nearly flawless. Five strokes out of the lead at the day's start, Mickelson closed with birdies on four of the last six holes to vault to the top of a star-studded leader board.

Mickelson’s 66 was sublime, all the more so because it signalled a new artistic direction for a player who long resisted adapting his style to fit the links game.

“He didn’t have a bad attitude about links courses,” Mackay said. “He just didn’t have the ball flight.”

Unconcealed heart

Mackay’s clear head complements Mickelson’s unconcealed heart, but when Mickelson made a curling, left-to-right 10-footer for birdie at the final hole, Mackay was the one who lost it. He was overcome by emotion seeing Mickelson succeed on a stage where he had failed so many times.

It moved him beyond words to see all the time Mickelson had spent developing a cut drive to counteract the wind pay off on such a grand stage.

The depth of Mackay’s fondness for Mickelson was revealed in a pool of tears that could have filled the claret jug. For one day, anyway, there was no taking for granted one of the most stable relationships in sports.

“It was awesome,” Mickelson said, adding: “Every time we watch the replay of the telecast, it brings out the same emotions and highs and lows that we experienced throughout that round. It’s something that we’ll cherish forever.”

Mickelson was days removed from his third NCAA individual title for Arizona State when he met Mackay, before a 36-hole US Open qualifier in Tennessee in 1992. Mickelson’s college coach, Steve Loy, who became his manager, arranged for Mackay to work for Mickelson on a trial basis.

Mackay shepherded Mickelson to an opening 69 at Farmington Country Club. In the afternoon, Mickelson shot a course-record 63 to earn a spot in the Open in Pebble Beach, California. In that tournament, making his professional debut, Mickelson missed the cut, with scores of 68 and 81, but gained a permanent caddie.

“Bones is just a very good man,” Mickelson said, referring to Mackay by his nickname. “I’m very lucky to have him because he’s not just what I think is the best caddie out on Tour, but he’s also just a quality individual, somebody I look to with respect.”

With Mackay on his bag, Mickelson has won 42 PGA Tour titles. The British Open was his fifth major, and he will start his quest for a repeat victory at Royal Liverpool on Thursday.

“We’re like any relationship,” Mackay said. “There are times when everything goes really, incredibly well. And there are times when things don’t feel as good.”

So confident

Watching Mickelson on the Muirfield range before his final round last year, Mackay had a feeling it was going to be a good day, he said. “He was hitting shots right at his targets. I’ve never seen him go to the first tee so confident in his abilities.”

Neither tricky winds nor Tiger Woods, hovering near the lead, could snap Mickelson out of his Zen-like state.

“He played the best round of his life on the Sunday of a major, on one of the most historic courses in the world, in tough conditions, to win a tournament with a leader board littered with the best players in the world,” Mackay said.

The tears Mackay shed afterward were a mixture of joy, relief and awe. “I really appreciate that I got to witness golf played at such an amazing level,” he said. Somehow, the day got better after that.

Private jet

A couple of hours after he left the course, Mackay said, he was polishing off a pizza with Rickie Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron, when his mobile rang. It was Mickelson, who told Mackay to cancel his commercial flight home the next day because he was making room for him on his private jet.

It was the shortest trans-Atlantic flight Mackay can remember taking, perhaps because he took turns drinking out of the claret jug. Two weeks later, it was as if the British Open had been a dream, with Mackay in Ohio with Mickelson for a World Golf Championships event.

“There I was in Akron, living and dying over every shot,” Mackay said. He laughed and said: “That’s the funny thing about golf. Your player has the best round of his life to win the British Open, and the next tournament you’re doing everything you can to motivate him to finish tied for 21st.” – New York Times Service