GULLANE, Scotland – Phil Mickelson wondered if he'd ever win this venerable trophy, the one he proudly posed with on Muirfield's 18th hole as photographers snapped away and fans chanted his name.
Raised on the lush, manicured courses of America, Lefty crafted a game that required one to look toward the sky. Booming drives. Soaring iron shots. Chips and wedges that floated, then spun improbably to a stop.
Beautiful to watch — except when Mickelson was trying to win the claret jug.
Links golf is played along the ground, a version of the game he fretted about ever mastering.
"It took me a while to figure it out," Mickelson said late Sunday, another step closer to a career Grand Slam. "It's been the last eight or nine years I've started to play it more effectively. But even then, it's so different than what I grew up playing. I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship."
He did it with the greatest round of his life.
Heck, it was one of the greatest closing rounds by anyone in major championship history.
While crusty Muirfield took out the other contenders — Down goes Tiger Woods! Down goes Lee Westwood! Down goes Adam Scott! — Mickelson blazed to the finish with a 5-under 66, matching the lowest score of the week in the pressure cooker of a final round.
Most impressively, he saved his best shots for the end, making birdies on four of the last six holes. The only challenge left was not to celebrate while eight of his rivals were still out on the course.
When Mickelson hit two exquisite 3-woods at the par-5 17th, the ball rolling onto the green for what he knew would be, at worst, a two-putt birdie, the championship was his to lose. Not that he hasn't pulled defeat from the jaws of victory before — most infamously in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. So there is still a bit of trepidation among the Phil-natics when he strolled to the 18th tee.
This time, he was right on the mark.
He drilled a hybrid down the middle, then ripped a 6-iron perilously close to the edge of the left bunker, the ball kicking right just as he intended. It rolled to a stop 10 feet behind the flag, and he rolled in the last of his birdies even though he didn't need it.
Mickelson thrust his arms in the air and let out a yell. His caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, began sobbing. Just off the green, his wife Amy and their three children waited to dole out some hugs.
"He works real hard and he wants it," Mackay said, explaining why the tears came so easily. "He really, really wants it."
Mickelson is 43 years old now, closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he still has a passion for the game and a desire to tie up some of the loose ends. This was one of them, something to add to his three Masters wins and a PGA Championship. Only 13 golfers have won more major titles; only five of those have won all four legs of the Grand Slam.
The last one eluding Mickelson is the U.S. Open, a championship where he's been the runner-up six times — most recently last month at Merion.
"He's resilient," Mackay said. "He looks forward."
Most certainly, Mickelson hasn't given up on adding that other Open to his resume. No matter what, he'll go down as one of golf's greatest players.
"The guy's done a lot," his caddie said. "He's done a lot of really cool things on the big stage."
Mickelson began the final round at Muirfield with a lot of ground to make up. He trailed Westwood by five shots, the 40-year-old Englishman never in a better position to pick up his first major. Woods was two shots behind, eager to end the longest major drought of his career. Masters champion Scott was also in the mix, as well as Hunter Mahan.
Westwood managed only one birdie all day, his strong putting touch finally undone by a bunch of errant shots. Woods was happy with the way he hit the ball, but never figured out Muirfield's slick greens, which he insisted got slower as the week went on. Scott held the outright lead on the back nine for the second Open in a row, but was doomed again by four straight bogeys.
"I let a great chance slip," Scott said. "Had I played a little more solid in the middle of that back nine, I could've had a chance coming in."
But this didn't feel like Lytham, where Scott threw away an almost-certain victory on the last four holes and eventual winner Ernie Els was almost apologetic. Mickelson earned this title.
He described it as "probably the best round of my career," complete with "some of the best shots that I've ever hit," and threw in that he "certainly putted better than I've ever putted."
Not a bad combination.
Playing five groups from the end, Mickelson crept into contention on the front side as those ahead of him began to falter. He had a couple of two-putt birdies on the par 5s, made par on everything else, and went to the back side even for the tournament — a score he felt might be good enough to win.
A bogey at the 10th, where Mickelson hit his second shot into a bunker and couldn't get up-and-down, briefly halted his momentum. But the best shots were still to come.
At the par-3 13th, Mickelson knocked a 5-iron to 8 feet and rolled in the putt. At the next hole, a 9-iron curled up 18 feet from the flag and he made that. A par save at the 16th — after the tee shot rolled back off the front of the green — was crucial. When Mickelson went to the tee box at the 17th, he was tied for the lead. By the time he got to the green, 40 feet away after two swings of the 3-wood, the lead was all his.
"I believe this is the first year we've had electronic scoreboards here at the British Open, and I was able to see one right there on the 17th green," he said with a grin.
Mickelson lagged his putt right up next to the hole and tapped in for another birdie. The lead was two shots.
By the time he rolled in that last birdie, the engraver was already etching Mickelson's name on the claret jug, even though the last four groups still had to finish.
The only possible challenger, Westwood, needed an eagle at the 17th just to have a chance. But he was done when his second shot sailed off into knee-high rough.
By then, Mickelson was accepting hugs and signing autographs. He'd already signed his card for a 3-under 281 — the only player to finish below par.
Henrik Stenson shot 70 and took the runner-up award at 284. Ian Poulter shot an early 67 and thought he might have a chance at 285. Instead, he wound up tied with Scott (72) and Westwood (75).
Woods was among those another shot back after a 74, his major drought still intact. The last of his 14 championships came at the 2008 U.S. Open; 21 majors have passed since then without him pulling any closer to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.
"I'm very pleased with the way I'm playing," Woods insisted. "I just never got the speed (of the greens) after the first day."
Mickelson was reluctant to let go of the claret jug now that it's finally in his grasp.
Not to worry.
It's his for a whole year.
"This is probably the most fulfilling moment of my career," Mickelson told the fans. "I'm very proud to be your champion."
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