GULLANE, Scotland – Denied for the sixth time the trophy he should have won last month, Phil Mickelson grabbed hold of the claret jug he wasn’t sure he could ever win.
“I never knew if I would win this tournament,” Mickelson said just moments before he was introduced on the 18th green at Muirfield as the British Open champion. “I hoped, but never knew it ... until about an hour ago.”
Despite all of the off-and-on struggles he’s had adapting to links golf in 19 previous British Open appearances, Mickelson produced one of the most epic final rounds in major championship history to storm from five behind at the start of the day to three clear of the field at the end. His 5-under 66 included four birdies in the last six holes and vaulted him past a host of fellow major winners and prominent stars who all seemed better positioned at one point or another on Sunday to win.
The performance left Mickelson’s caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay in tears while Mickelson and his family were nothing but smiles for the 45 minutes it took for his fifth major victory to become official and elevate his legacy.
“You work for a guy for 21 years … it’s pretty cool … when you see him play the best round of golf he’s ever played … in the last round of the British Open,” Mackay said in between staggered sobs. “That’s why I was emotional. … He hit it great. He putted great. When he got what I thought was a bad break on 16, he got it up and down. He played the best round of golf I’ve ever seen him play to win the British Open.”
All this right on the heels of perhaps the most gut-wrenching loss of Mickelson’s career last month in the U.S. Open at Merion. A couple loose wedges down the stretch cost him what he called his “best chance” to win the major in which he’s suffered six runner-up losses in 14 years.
“It’s a huge difference in emotions, as you can imagine,” Mickelson said. “And being so down after the U.S. Open, to come back and use it as motivation, to use it as a springboard, knowing that I’m playing well and to push me a little bit extra to work harder. To come out on top, in a matter of a month to turn it around, it really feels amazing. I thought that it could go either way. You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it. And after losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south, where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back.”
Mickelson showed a hint of his resilience in winning the Scottish Open last week on a new links course at Castle Stuart. But for three days at Muirfield he lingered a bit under the radar as most of the attention was paid to his all-star peers perched above him on the leaderboard – Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Angel Cabrera and Johnson.
None of them broke par Sunday while Mickelson became the newest Hall of Fame addition to Muirfield’s storied cast of champions.
Mickelson, however, never doubted that he could. When his swing coach, Butch Harmon, told him before the round he believed even par or 1-under could be the winning score, Mickelson said, “I’m going to do better than that.”
“He wasn’t lying,” Harmon said.
Mickelson called it “probably the greatest round of my career,” eclipsing the 69 he shot in the final round of the 2004 Masters Tournament when he fired 31 on the back nine to win his first career major.
“It was the back nine at the Masters,” he said. “This was like a complete round start to finish.”
When he knocked in his final 12-footer for birdie and raised his arms, he hollered “I did it” to his caddie over the din of the gallery roars.
Mickelson’s British triumph doesn’t erase the sting of his sixth U.S. Open runner-up – but it helps.
“That’s a whole separate event that I have to let go of and move on,” he said.
The U.S. Open is the only missing piece of a career slam that only five of the game’s all-time greats – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods – have accomplished. It’s a legacy that Mickelson still craves.
“That’s the sign of the complete great player – and I’m a leg away,” Mickelson said. “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 U.S. Open, and I’m very hopeful that I will, but it has been elusive for me. And yet this championship has been much harder for me to get.”
Already a certified Hall of Famer, Mickelson took another step to being something more Sunday – a legend. And he did it in classic Phil fashion.
“Honestly, I don’t care either way how I got this trophy – I got it,” he said, his hand never letting go of the claret jug that now bears his name. “And it just so happened to be with one of the best rounds of my career, which is really the way I’ve played my entire career. I’ve always tried to go out and get it. I don’t want anybody to hand it to me, I want to go out and get it. And today I did.”
At 43, Mickelson got the one trophy he didn’t know he could. But the “most fulfilling moment” of his career doesn’t mean his legacy is filled.
“He’s stronger than he’s ever been, he’s fitter than he’s ever been, he’s hungrier than he’s ever been,” Mackay said. “And you can’t understate how much he wants to compete and do well. When he’s 60-something years old he’s going to be on the putting green at Augusta thinking he has a chance. That’s just how he is built.”