July 22, 2013

British Open: Mickelson is proving to be a major player

Winner Phil Mickelson is now 43, but he's hungry, more fit, and playing the best golf of his life.

By BARRY SVRLUGA The Washington Post

GULLANE, Scotland - At 43, 20-odd years into a career, athletic legacies are normally fully formed, and appearances on the greatest stages seem fleeting, a memory of what once was.

click image to enlarge

Phil Mickelson embraces his caddy, Jim Mackay, after winning the British Open for the first time on Sunday.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

Phil Mickelson celebrates his final putt on the 18th green, as he wins the British Open at Gullane, Scotland, on Sunday. Mickelson now has five major championships, second to Tiger Woods’ 14 among active players.

The Associated Press

SUNDAY’S KEY HOLE

HOLE: No. 13

YARDAGE: 190; PAR: 3

STROKE AVERAGE: 3.2

KEY FACT: Phil Mickelson hit a 5-iron to 8 feet on the hole for the first of four birdies on his last six holes. Adam Scott, who was leading at the time, missed the green off the tee and bogeyed the 13th, the first of three straight bogeys.

HOW THEY FINISHED

The champ

Mickelson. 69-74-72-66--281

Coming closest

Stenson 70-70-74-70--284

Poulter 72-71-75-67--285

Scott 71-72-70-72--285

Westwood 72-68-70-75--285

Notable

Woods 69-71-72-74--286

Johnson 66-75-73-72--286

Mahan 72-72-68-75--287

Cabrerea 69-72-73-74--288

Garcia 75-73-68-75--291

But in the gray Scottish light Sunday evening, with a leader board above the grandstand that reflected some of the stoutest names in golf -- Woods, Westwood, Scott and others -- Phil Mickelson watched a putt roll into the bottom of the cup at Muirfield's 18th hole, thrust both his arms skyward and held them there on his joyous walk to retrieve the ball.

Right then, in accomplishing something even the supremely confident Mickelson thought unfathomable, the possibility jumped out.

He won the British Open, a tournament he once found more perplexing than calculus. If that's possible, at 43, what next? What if he's just getting started?

"I never knew if I would be able to win this tournament," Mickelson said later, as he waited to collect the claret jug. "I always hoped and believed, but I never knew it -- until about an hour ago."

What Mickelson did Sunday in winning his first British Open and fifth major championship was play his best golf, a round both he and caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay called the best of his career. But there is more to it than that, more than just his closing 66 that put him 3 under par for the tournament -- three shots clear of the field -- and more, even, than birdieing four of the final six holes.

No, what Mickelson did at Muirfield both rounded out his resume, adding a claret jug to his three Masters titles and lone PGA Championship, and opened up the possibility that if he's playing his best golf now, more than two decades into his career, there could be more majors to come. He is an oddity: a Hall of Famer, one of the best players of his or any generation, who's still a work in progress, perhaps improving.

"He's stronger than he's ever been," said Mackay, the only caddie Mickelson has employed in a 21-year pro career. "He's fitter than he's ever been. He's hungrier than he's ever been. You can't (overstate) how much he wants to compete and do well."

That was right there Sunday, a day Mickelson began five shots behind leader Lee Westwood, with eight players ahead of him. Throw a dart at that 54-hole leader board, and you would have come up with a worthy champion: Westwood, 40, still on the eternal quest for his first major; Tiger Woods, desperately seeking to end a five-year drought; Adam Scott, who suffered through so much pain in last year's Open, only to win this year's Masters; to Hunter Mahan, Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson.

'I'M GOING TO BE BETTER THAN THAT'

But on the range before his round, Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, spoke with Mackay. With Westwood in the lead at 3 under, Woods and Mahan two behind that, and Muirfield intimidating but not impossible, they told Mickelson that even par or 1 under could win the claret jug.

"And he goes, 'I'm going to be better than that,' " Harmon said. "He wasn't lying."

So off he went, on a wild quest over what became a wild day. England's Westwood, the people's choice to start the round, held a three-shot lead as he played the par-3 seventh -- a lead over the early-charging Ian Poulter (who shot a closing 67), Sweden's Henrik Stenson (the eventual runner-up with a final-round 70) -- and Mickelson, who was just making the turn.

WESTWOOD DERAILED BY THREE HOLES

Westwood, though, then hit the stretch that derailed his chances -- pulling the wrong club at 7 and ending up in a front bunker, finding another bunker that led to his second straight bogey at 8, then finding the left rough off the tee at the par-5 ninth, Muirfield's lone undeniable birdie hole.

(Continued on page 2)

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