The Open Championship is often known for blustery winds and sideways rain. For the past year, the PGA and the R&A have been setting up a course with similar weather in mind, but what they got was four straight days of uninterrupted sun, a Gullane, Scotland weather anomaly that probably has not occurred since the Open was last at Muirfield in 2002.
The unlikely weather turned a Muirfield links course into something more reminiscent of a parking lot. Players were baffled by baked out fairways and greens that were resulting in oddities such as 300 yard four irons and 10 foot downhill putts with 15 feet of break. Many players and analysts questioned the fairness of the playing surface, but after four days its most vocal critic ended up in possession of the Claret Jug.
Phil Mickelson entered Sunday’s final round two over in a tie for ninth place, far from out of the conversation but in no sense the favorite. What happened in the four-and-a-half hours after Phil teed off on Sunday will go down as one of the greatest final round performances in major tournament history.
Mickelson put on an absolute clinic from tee to green the entire round. On a course that surrendered few birdie opportunities, Phil managed to card a five under final round of 66, the best round in the field all week, with four birdies coming in the last six holes of the tournament. This round immediately joins the company of Jack Nicklaus at the ’86 Masters, Tom Watson at the ’84 Open Championship and a small handful of others as one of the greatest closing performances in the illustrious history of the game.
After his final round 66, the always-candid Mickelson admitted, “this is probably the best round of my career.” A strong statement coming from a five-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer.
In a tournament that exposed professionals for their mental weaknesses, Lefty had his own doubts. Growing up in southern California, Mickelson learned how to play the game through the air, a complete mirror of the angular ground game it takes to capture an Open Championship. After 17 career starts at the Open, Mickelson finally found the right combination of mental toughness, physical ability and the always-important Lady Luck (see approach on 18).
Links golf and Muirfield, in particular, propose challenges that the American style of the sport does not. This brand of the game demands a great sense of feel and an unwavering mental fortitude. Only a month removed from a deflating collapse at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, many people questioned if Mickelson’s head was in the right place to win this tournament. A lesser competitor would have been adversely affected by such a loss but he used it as a springboard into a much more focused and determined practice regimen. The mentally resilient Mickelson proved that his previous major collapse was in the past by winning in his next start at the Scottish Open and the following week at the Open Championship.
How naïve of us to think anything less of a man who has been knocked down and gotten back up so many times before. He was deemed the best player without a major and critics questioned if he had what it took, until in 2004 he slipped into a green jacket and emphatically answered 'yes.' Time after time after time after time after time after time (six, to be exact), he has been runner-up at the U.S Open, but he always gets back up. After a massive collapse in 2006 at Winged Foot, Mickelson once again refused to stay down. And after his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with cancer, the Mickelsons got up and won again.
This victory is much more than another trophy on the mantle for Mickelson. He is now one of 15 players to capture three of the four legs of the career grand slam. He is tied with legends such as Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros with five major championships. Mickelson is on the edge of golf immortality.
The name 'Phil Mickelson' will be stamped all over this game’s history, but this win catapults him into the echelon of names such as Nick Faldo, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Nelson and Ballesteros. The only thing keeping Phil off of golf’s Mount Rushmore (Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Watson, Gary Player) is the ever-fleeting U.S. Open.
In a sport that spans over three centuries, Phil Mickelson should now be regarded as one of the Top 10 greatest golfers of all time. A U.S. Open victory would make him the sixth player to achieve the career grand slam and ascend him even further up the list of all-time greats. Only that one hurdle remains in front of Lefty and athletic immortality.
History tells us he has had his chances and it probably won’t happen, but if Mickelson taught us anything this weekend, it’s that he doesn’t rely on history to tell the story.
He would rather write it himself.