PLUCKY Phil Mickelson heaved a huge sigh of relief last night after bouncing back from a “loss of focus” on the 72nd green to win the £3 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in a sudden-death play-off.
Five off the lead with 15 holes to play in the final round, the four-times major champion three-putted from 20 feet at the last with the title in his grasp after a dramatic day in the Highlands.
It left him a play-off with South African Branden Grace after the pair finished with 17-under-par totals of 271, two ahead of Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and unheralded Dane JB Hansen. But, while Mickelson had lost out in exactly the same situation to Frenchman Gregory Havret at Loch Lomond in 2007, the 43-year-old wasn’t about to let history repeat itself.
To the delight of a crowd of more than 17,000, he almost holed a pitch from 45 yards to set up a title-winning birdie as Grace, last year’s Dunhill Links winner, was unable to match it with a putt from 25 feet.
It was Mickelson’s first individual triumph on British soil and was the perfect warm-up for his latest attempt to win the Open Championship at Muirfield this week.
“It’s very special for me to win in Scotland,” admitted the new champion after being greeted with hugs of joy from his wife Amy and their three children at the greenside. “Adapting to links-style golf has been the biggest challenge of my career and to come out on top in these conditions on firm ground is both fulfilling and special.
“I had a bit of a rocky start (a double-bogey 6 at the first) but hit a lot of good shots in between. I probably allowed myself to think I had won and allowed my focus to slide a bit. But I was able to regain it and go on to win so that might be a good thing heading into next week.”
Mickelson, a staunch supporter of the tournament, is the third American to win the Scottish Open after Michael Allen (1989 at Gleneagles) and Tom Lehman (1997 at Loch Lomond). “It is great to finally win this event after coming close a few times,” added the new champion, who had blown his chances in that shoot-out six years ago by sending his tee shot into the water.
“To win on a links course is important to me as I’ve had to learn how to hit the shots that are required over here. It builds confidence for future British and Scottish Opens,” he added.
Insisting he would be back to defend the title when the event moves to Royal Aberdeen in 12 months’ time, Mickelson will now move down to East Lothian to try to make it back-to-back wins on Scottish soil.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered links golf with this win – that would be overstating it,” said the fans’ favourite, who let a golden opportunity slip when losing out to Justin Rose in last month’s US Open. “I’ve had kind of baby steps along the way in my career and this is a big step for me. If I were to win an Open Championship in my career, I think that would be one of the greatest achievements.
“Hopefully I’ll put myself in position through good play (at Muirfield) but you also need a few good breaks if you want to play well in the Open Championship.”
Martin Laird’s 68 – the best round of the day – saw him finish as the leading Scot in joint-fifth, while Chris Doak picked up a career-best cheque for just under £50,000 for joint-12th.