ATTENDANCE numbers are down at Muirfield and no wonder if this is the kind of bemusing, nerve-shredding last day it is intent on offering. Faint hearts can stay away – and that includes the players, only one of whom finished four days of compelling competition with a red number.
Green keeper Colin Irvine looked on with evident satisfaction as he stood in front of the clubhouse, dressed up to the nines in suit, shirt and tie. Even Phil Mickelson had made a few critical asides about the greens. However, he was not cursing them yesterday, after two birdies at the 13th and 14th holes shot him back into contention. On the dry, brown links, Mickelson succeeded in lighting a fire under the tournament, and allowing us to put to one side – for now – the concerns voiced by some that this year’s Open had been stifled by the relentless march of commercialism.
The smoke rings drew spectators across the burnt landscape towards match No 38. Until then, Mickelson and playing partner Francesco Molinari had been operating in relative obscurity. Spectators would stop and watch for a while, conclude that there was nothing much to see here, and then move on. Mickelson was in the process of putting together a fine round, but he needed misfortune to befall others coming along behind him. Golf is a cruel game that way. For someone to succeed, others have to fail.
However, there is no question that a tough championship got a suitably swashbuckling victor, someone who was prepared to take the course on when he felt he had to, and who didn’t let setbacks consume him. “Slow down,” Mickelson told his long-term caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay after teeing off at the first tee. He was the relaxed one.
Only one player managed to shoot below par, a sign, perhaps, that the course had produced someone truly deserving of the status of champion golfer of the year, which, in one of the tournament’s many endearing idiosyncrasies, is how the winner of the Open is described at the prize-giving ceremony.
It was strange to be there in the vicinity of the 18th green as Mickelson celebrated a birdie putt to take a two shot-lead, while the star attractions – or at least those who we thought would be the star attractions at the start of the day– were still to be come down the 18th. In Lee Westwood’s case, he was way back at the 14th hole, having encountered difficulties at the same time as Mickelson was undergoing a solid revival following a string of seven pars and two birdies on the front nine.
The other players in this drama were now being rendered superfluous in the narrative of a day that Mickelson grabbed with the same intense grip that he later used when clutching the Claret Jug to his chest.
In the moment of Mickelso’s triumph, it felt as if the attendant controversies had briefly melted away. The Muirfield ban on female membership issue will of course rear its head again, but it did not seem relevant yesterday, as Amy, Mickelson’s wife, skipped across the 18th green in a bid to obtain a good vantage point for the presentation. There was no grumbling from the clubhouse. Only applause. It is hard to explain why attendance numbers are down if those present seem intent on showering praise on the Open, but it is there in black and white – over 160,000 attended at this venue in 2002, compared to 142,000 over the last four days.
Robert Fisher had come all the way from Mickelson’s hometown of San Diego, and hailed year’s Open as a “fantastic tournament”. The lower number of spectators was a positive, as far as they were concerned. “It wasn’t packed, compared to the US Open for example,” he said. “I prefer less people, but you still drink beer and cheer and have a good time.” Their day had been enhanced by Mickelson coming through the pack to win, with something to spare in the end.
Where did the momentum shift? It is hard to say exactly, but at the par 3 13th hole, when Mickelson gave himself a birdie chance with a 6ft putt, following a 190 yard shot of the tee with a 4 iron, you felt as if he was really beginning to believe, as were the spectators.
As Mickelson ambled down the fairway a spectator had leaned over the rope and urged: “You can do this Phil!” There was also the small matter of a £10 bet that the gentleman had riding on it. Mickelson smiled, white teeth gleaming on a face that has been turned a deeper shade of mahogany courtesy of a couple of very productive weeks in, erm, Scotland.
The famous phrase employed by the football writer Geoffrey Green about firemen going to the wrong fire when describing England defenders trying to get to grips with Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas had come to mind as spectators stood frozen by indecision, before then heading off in search of the match that might provide the winner.
Ian Poulter looked like he could be a contender. Three consecutive birdies at the start of the back nine ignited the galleries. Then Adam Scott’s name rose to the top of the leaderboard and fans changed direction again. There is nothing as frustrating as settling on a spot to watch and then almost instantly hearting a huge whoop as someone does something utterly brilliant elsewhere.
However, there comes a time when you have to make a decision and stick with it. Mickelson looked to have the look in his eye – as well as a pinch of gunpowder on his irons. The numbers following him increased steadily, as others elsewhere fell away.
His par save at the 16th seemed hugely significant, since he was level with Henrik Stenson and Westwood at the time. Dropping a shot then could have been calamitous. His tee shot was greeted with cheers as it plopped down on the green but then the ball, after appearing to want to stay still, began to roll down the slope. Mickelson saw that the ball had at least avoided a bunker. His caddie looked more worried than he was. “I can get this up and down,” Mickelson assured him, and he did.
According to Mackay afterwards, Mickelson was “in a great place all week mentally.” He added: “To come back and win the Open in Scotland, a country that it is fair to say he has a tremendous affection for, means a lot to him”
He was speaking while the tournament was still going on. Mackay had been hesitant about answering reporters’ questions before it had been absolutely confirmed that his man was the winner. Players such as Tiger Woods walked past, almost unnoticed, while a caddie entertained a crowd. Mackay had been as emotional as anyone walking off.
‘Why the tears, he was asked, and he promptly broke down again. “You work with that for 21 years...” The tears started to roll down the London-born Mackay’s cheeks again. “It is pretty cool when you see him play the best round of golf that he has ever played.
“That is why I was emotional.”
“When he got what I thought was a bad break on the 16th hole, he got it up and down and played the best round of golf he has ever played to maybe win the British Open,” he added.
Can we take the “maybe” out there, he was asked?
2002 OPEN AT MUIRFIELD
Practice Days 30,862
2013 OPEN AT MUIRFIELD
Practice Days 31,320