by Jeff Skinner
It wasn’t supposed to be his day. Phil Mickelson started his day five behind leader Lee Westwood. It looked like Westwood was on the verge of finally winning his first major championship. He had a two shot lead and a revitalized putter. But this is why we play the game.
Whether he succumbed to the pressure or his putter just cooled off didn’t matter much. Phil Mickelson had the back nine of a lifetime to claim his first Open Championship with an emotional win that he called “one of the most memorable rounds of golf I ever played.”
The links at Muirfield were filled with the buzz of another Englishman, Ian Poulter making a charge for his own initial major. Poulter’s stellar 67 which included five straight 3’s made him the clubhouse leader at one over par.
But that left a host of players with a good shot at sneaking in at anything under par. Westwood was still alive as was Henrik Stenson. Adam Scott had the lead by two at one point but four bogeys on the back nine killed his chances.
As Poulter watched from the clubhouse Phil was just getting warmed up. He didn’t card his first birdie until the fifth hole and found another at the ninth but a bogey on the tenth started his back nine going in the wrong direction.
Then Phil the Thrill did just that, thrill the thousands of fans that cheered him mightily all week. A birdie at the par three thirteenth got him to even. Then another at fourteen got him to one under and a share of the lead.
Mickelson flashed that ever present smile as he reached the par five seventeenth in two and two putted for another birdie. He was at two under, by himself as the others melted around him.
A great tee ball on eighteen and a better approach left him a makeable birdie putt to close out the field with an exclamation point. True to his dramatic back nine (32) he rolled it in dead center to the cheers of the locals packed in the grandstands.
With that putt he knew there was no chance of being caught. He knew he had won the Open. His arms raised in victory and maybe a bit of relief and a tearful hug from his man Bones left a smiling Mickelson to find his wife and children behind the green.
It’s a scene that was unthinkable before this season. Phil never seemed to get it right at the Open. This major calls for some restraint and cautiously, calculated shots, neither of which were ever Phil’s strong points.
But he went into last week’s Scottish Open with a new plan, a plan that had him hitting shots with a hint of restraint and caution. It worked well as he won his first ever tournament on a links course. Coming into the Open he was on a high but winning back to back links tournaments seemed almost out of the realm of possibilities. But that is what makes Phil…Phil.
As Phil tried to recover from the devastating sixth second place finish at the U.S. Open only Phil and maybe his diehard fans thought he ever had a chance at the Open. But after his win at the Scottish Open the belief grew not just with his fans but with Mickelson himself.
This week he proved that an old dog can learn new tricks. He’s learned the secret of links golf. What he called his “hate/love” relationship with links golf is definitely more love than ever today.
Today he earns the third leg of the career Grand Slam with only the slippery U.S. Open escaping his grasp. But after today’s performance he has to be even more determined to claim that one.
He’s Phil Mickelson, the Champion Golfer of the Year. It doesn’t get much better than that.