HARMONIOUS as Alex Salmond’s relationship with Phil Mickelson may have become of late, he’s probably quite happy that yesterday’s Open championship winner is in no position to run against him for Scotland’s First Minister.
After completing a dream double on Scottish soil by following up his victory at Castle Stewart last week by claiming the title at the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield, the big American’s popularity has just gone through the roof in the home of golf.
So often the one being shot at in majors – and far too often ending up as the wounded animal, particularly in his home Open – the American came storming up on the rails this time with a breathtaking finish to land the spoils, just as Adam Scott did when he won The Masters earlier in the year.
Scott suffered Open heartache in this event for the second year running, although not on the same scale as Lytham 12 months ago. The Australian edged into the lead here with seven holes to before four bogeys in a row did for him.
Thanks to a closing five-under 66 – he covered the last six holes, one of the most fearsome stretches in golf, in a superb four-under – Mickelson’s 72-hole three-under aggregate of 281 saw him claim his first Claret Jug by three strokes from Swede Henrik Stenson (70).
Scott (72) shared third spot with English pair Ian Poulter (67) and Lee Westwood (75), the latter suffering a fresh dollop of disappointment in his increasingly desperate bid to shake the nearly man tag as his challenge ran out of steam just as Mickelson was stoking up his late surge. Third at Troon in 2004 then joint-second at Royal St George’s two years ago, the 43-year-old was close to tears – trusty caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay was bubbling like a bairn – as he walked off the 18th green into the arms of his wife, Amy, and their three children, Amanda, Sophia and Evan.
It had taken Mickelson 22 years to taste individual success on Scottish soil. He’ll now know, though, about buses coming along all at once after winning the Scottish Open and now here in the space of a week.
He’s the first left-hander to be crowned Open champion since Bob Charles exactly 50 years ago and, having won his fifth major, he only needs a win at the US Open – were he’s finished runner-up six times – to complete the career Grand Slam and rub shoulders with Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
On a mainly overcast day, seven of the morning starters broke 70 – a feat achieved by only five players in total on Saturday. Jason Dufner’s four-under 67, which contained six birdies, was the pick of those last-day efforts. Having started out 15 shots back, however, the American barely made a ripple on the leaderboard.
Poulter did, though. Eight adrift of Westwood heading out, he was one-over for the round after four holes before the Ryder Cup talisman moved into Medinah mode. He birdied the fifth then eagled the long ninth, holing a 12-footer there, to be out in two-under 34. When the Englishman, those eyes almost starting to pop out of his head as he sensed he could be in with a sniff, started for home with three straight birdies, he’d become an unexpected but welcome ingredient in the recipe as the leaders headed out.
Playing together in the penultimate group, Scott and Woods lost ground straight away. Scott bogeyed the first after finding sand with his opening tee shot. Woods did likewise after three-putting from long range. He did the same thing again at the par-3 fourth. Even that early in the proceedings, you began to sense this was going to be another toothless Tiger day.
It was Stenson, who’d led going into the last round of the Scottish Open seven days earlier, who made the first positive thrust. The Swede birdied the first and third. At one-under, he suddenly had Westwood in his sights. Playing partner Zach Johnson was hanging in, too, after he opened with nine straight pars.
Afforded a huge cheer when he appeared on the first tee for his last date with destiny, Westwood shaved the hole with a birdie attempt at the first before coming up just short with another one at the second.
His first teste of nerve came at the third. A pulled tee shot found the thick stuff. He was still in after his second. Unlike Martin Laird on the other side of that hole the previous day, though, he got out of there with his title bid still intact after limiting the damage to a bogey-5.
It was repaired just two holes later as the fifth proved a happy hunting ground for the second day running. A bunkered tee shot meant he was always going to be hard pushed to match Saturday’s eagle. A great third, though, to around 12 feet set up his first birdie of the day. Back to three-under, he led by two from Stenson.
Poulter missed from around ten feet at the 13th for his fourth birdie on the spin. Realistically, his hopes were dashed when he tugged his tee shot at the 16th and failed to save par. The birdie-birdie finish he needed failed to materialise, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
This was the second time he’d come with a late run in this event, having also finished like a train when ending up second behind Padraig Harrington at Birkdale five years ago. He’ll be back banging on the door again on this stage.
When Woods dropped his third shot of the day at the sixth, he was five off the lead on three-over as, all of a sudden, Westwood found himself as the only man under par. Disturbed by a noise in the crowd, he dumped his tee shot into sand at the par-3 seventh. His mood was darkened by a plugged lie. His first attempt hit the top of the bunker and came back to his feet. The next one came out to 15 feet. Just as he’d done at the 16th the previous day, he did well to walk off with a bogey.
A Scott surge started at the same hole. He birdied that, the next as well from 40 feet and the par-5 ninth, too, to move to one-under. When Westwood bogeyed the eighth, it meant he was now sharing the lead with Scott and Stenson, who had a chance to grab it out outright but missed a seven-foot birdie putt at the tenth.
An eagle-3 at the ninth moved Hunter Mahan to within striking distance. Earlier Mickelson had picked up his second shot of the day there to also go to level-par only to give that shot straight back at the next. It was only after he birdied the 13th and 14th that the eventual winner’s name really edged into the frame. “My birdie putt at the 13th was critical as that gave me some momentum,” he said afterwards.
Even then, it looked as though Scott had the scent of victory in his nostrils, as had been the case at exactly the same stage in the 2012 edition. The Australian almost pitched his second full toss into the hole at the 11th. A birdie there moved him to two-under and into the lead – the first time Westwood had been headed since the fifth hole on Saturday.
Woods apart – the world No 1 birdied the 12th and 14th, where he knocked his approach stiff but never really looked like hauling himself back into contention after his rocky start – Stenson was the first to falter with back-to-back bogeys at the 12th and 13th. “Not the right time to make bogey if you want to win an Open,” reflected the Swede, who matched Jesper Parnevik’s runner-up finish at Turnberry in 1994 after also finishing third in 2008 and 2010.
The 13th was also where Scott’s challenge started to fall apart. Well wide with his tee shot (is there a better short hole in the world than this little gem?), he conjured up a splendid recovery. An eight-foot par putt wasn’t converted, though, and it was meltdown all over again. He three-putted the next, missed a short one for par at the 15th then dropped his fourth shot in a row at the short 16th.
While Mickelson’s four birdies in the final six holes were magical, just as important were the pars he made at the 15th and 16th. The latter, in particular, was arguably the week’s pivotal moment. His tee shot landed safely on the dance floor only to start trickling backwards and eventually toppled off the front of the green.
From a tight lie, he chipped it ten feet past but rolled in his putt. Suddenly, big Phil was looking ten feet tall as he strode off to the 17th tee. He split the fairway there, knocked his second on to the green – “two of the best 3-woods I’ve hit and the reason I don’t have a driver in my bag,” he said – and a straightforward two-putt birdie went down on the card.
Playing four groups behind, Westwood missed the green at the 13th. He showed his creativity to use a bank behind the hole as a backstop but was unable to salvage a par. He probably knew what had happened as a huge cheer echoed across the course from the direction of the 18th green shortly afterwards.
Mickelson may have botched majors in the past. Winged Foot in 2006, when he ballooned his drive at the 72nd hole in US Open almost out of the golf course springs instantly to mind. Even the same event at Merion last month was his for the taking. There was no slip up this time, though. He can rarely have hit a better tee shot than that off the final tee. The second shot was pretty tasty, too, though it did flirt with the bunker on the left before feeding down to about 12 feet past the pin. It had a fair bit of break in it. Phil’s eye was in, though, and in it rolled.
His 66 equalled the lowest round of the week. Home in 32, he finished as the only player below par. Following in the spikemarks of James Braid, Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els, it was another case of the cream rising to the top at Muirfield.
“The past champions here are exceptional and to be part of that feels great,” said a smiling Mickelson as he clung on to the Claret Jug and looked as though he might not let go until Hoylake in 12 months’ time.