Yes, Phil Mickelson was installed as the second favourite behind Tiger Woods coming into Open Championship week, but that was mostly because of a win the week prior against a lesser quality field in Scotland at Castle Stuart, a course that several players, Graeme McDowell most notably, decided to avoid as they declared it not being good preparation for the Open.
Golf has always been a game about comfort, whether we’re talking about a swing, apparel or a course. Every player has favourite and least favourite venues. Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, Steve Stricker loves TPC Deere Run and Mickelson hates links golf. In 19 previous Opens, Mickelson had finished inside the top-10 only twice, an astonishingly low number considering his vast skill set, and it’s something he’s well aware of too, noting that he’s just never seemed to figure it all out.
But this was a different Mickelson, he claimed, in the lead up to the event. After he won at Castle Stuart, he said he felt more confident than ever before when it came to links golf and that he had actually learned a thing or two. He was going to be smarter, a huge departure for the man who once said that “a great shot is the one you pull off, and a smart shot is the one you hit when you don’t have the guts to try it.” So, the driver was out of the bag this week. With the distance he’d get from his 3-wood and the run from the rock hard fairways, he wouldn’t need it anyway he said.
After his third round on Saturday, Mickelson told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that he thought even par would win the tournament outright, with 1-over forcing a playoff. To do that, he’d need either a 69 or 70, as he entered Sunday’s final round five shots back of England’s Lee Westwood.
A few weeks ago, it was Mickelson who held a lead at a major heading to Sunday, carrying a one-shot advantage over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Stricker at his country’s national championship at Merion. That lead would eventually be lost as another Englishman, Justin Rose, triumphed for his first major win.
Mickelson started solidly on Sunday, playing the front nine in 2-under par, which put him right in the mix, especially after Westwood went out in 38 with one birdie and three bogeys on the front. Challengers came and went, all big names too, with Woods, Adam Scott, Hunter Mahan, Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter all threatening, but Mickelson remained constant, even after a bogey on the par-4 10th.
With Poulter already in the clubhouse at 1-over par, Mickelson had a number that he knew he had to top. Birdies came on 13 and 14, and just as importantly, no dropped shots through a stretch of holes that had been making the best players in the world look like a bunch of weekend hackers.
Mickelson saved par again on 17, heading to the final hole at 2-under par. Those contenders mentioned earlier? Muirfield’s howling winds, deep pot bunkers, thick fescue and baffling greens eliminated all of them. Save for that bogey on 10, Mickelson avoided those same pitfalls, playing the course like the smart tactician that he’s always claimed he could be.
He stepped to the 18th tee, two shots clear of his nearest competitor. Talk of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006 started up. Back then, Mickelson needed just a par to win his first U.S. Open, and he decided to hit driver from the tee. It went so far left that he drilled the hospitality tents, and then made it even worse when his second shot hit a tree, only advancing the ball 25 yards. He would later call himself an idiot in the post-tournament press conference, knowing that it was a mental error that cost him the tournament. There would be none of that on Sunday.
He took out his Phrankenwood, yes, that’s what they call it, and split the fairway. His approach into the green kicked off the mound guarding a greenside bunker, landing his ball about twelve feet from the cup for birdie. He stepped up and knocked it in, raising his arms in victory and embracing his caddie, Bones, who was in tears. There were still players on the course, but they were too far behind. It was over. Phil Mickelson had won the Open Championship.
After the round, Mickelson spoke with Rinaldi again, talking about the way he went around the course, doing his best to avoid certain areas that would leave him in tough spots. He knew about the bunker on 17 that cost Paul Azinger the win in 1987, giving it to Nick Faldo who made eighteen pars for the victory. He knew that links golf is sometimes more about what you avoid than what you hit. This really was a different guy. It may have taken him twenty years, but he figured it out.
Mickelson was supposed to win his first major much earlier in his career, but he didn’t. He was supposed to win a U.S. Open by now, but he hasn’t. He probably should have been the number one player in the world at some point, but that hasn’t happened either. The best thing about Phil Mickelson is that we never know what to expect. Five major championship wins later, he’s still leaving everyone guessing, himself included.
Phil Mickelson winning the Open Championship wasn’t supposed to happen, but with him, we really shouldn’t have expected anything else.