Scottish Open: Phil Mickelson triumphs in play-off

Phil Mickelson sealed the title against Branden Grace in a play-off. Picture: SNS
Phil Mickelson sealed the title against Branden Grace in a play-off. Picture: SNS
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IT WOULDN’T be Phil Mickelson if he didn’t do it the hard way. But, on this occasion, the popular American wasn’t going to let the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open title slip from his grasp, as it did when he lost a play-off to Frenchman Gregory Havret at Loch Lomond six years ago.

A careless three-putt on the final hole left him in a sudden-death shoot-out once again, this time with South African Branden Grace. While Phil had lost his share of play-offs in the past, Grace, whose four victories on the European Tour last season included the Dunhill Links, had a 100 per cent record. Not now, though.

Mickelson made amends for that earlier slip-up at the 18th by producing a moment of magic. Just under 50 yards short of the green in two, he was helped by having a hardpan lie. It allowed him to get plenty of action on his pitch and almost spun it in the hole for a title-winning birdie.

It secured the 43-year-old’s first individual triumph in Scotland – he was on the winning US team along with Steve Stricker and Mark O’Meara in the 1996 Dunhill Cup at St Andrews – and provided a fitting finale to this instalment for the £3 million event at Castle Stuart before returning to the Highlands, almost certainly in 2016.

While the first three days may well have been a putting competition, the Inverness course showed some final-day teeth for the second year running. A westerly wind, the one this layout was designed to provide its ultimate test, gusted up to 25mph and the rash of red figures from earlier in the week was suddenly replaced by blue and black ones. In some instances, players were left feeling black and blue after running up big numbers.

Dane JB Hansen, in fact, could have been a candidate for a trip to nearby Raigmore Hospital after the pain he suffered at the second. He dumped two balls in the gorse there. After taking a penalty drop on each occasion, he was still 200 yards from the green playing 6 and, in the end, did well to limit the damage to a quadruple-bogey 9, dropping him to ten-under.

When overnight leader Henrik Stenson, playing two groups behind alongside Mickelson, birdied the second to move to 17-under, he was seven shots clear of his fellow Scandinavian, but, if the unheralded Hansen was supposed to fall away meekly and allow one of the big guns an easy ride to the title, he obviously hadn’t read the script. What followed over his next six holes will go down in European Tour folklore.

He reeled off five straight birdies to repair the damage, caught his breath again with a par at the eighth then birdied the ninth, where he holed from 20 feet. It meant he’d covered six holes in level 3s and, incredibly, he headed down the hill to the tenth tee sharing the lead with Stenson, though Mickelson was still hanging on to their coat tails after a shocking start.

He may have been hailed for a touch of magic on Friday, but don’t expect big Phil to be encouraging too many re-runs of yesterday’s second shot at the first. A top is probably the only way to describe it and, followed by a subsequent three-putt, it was the root of a double-bogey 6.

Mickelson, in fact, was up and down like a fiddler’s elbow over the first five holes. He birdied the second, fourth, five and sixth, but wasn’t so clever at the third. Right off the tee, his chip fell off the left-hand side of the green. Short-sided, he then saw his first attempt to get up and over the bank come back to his feet before knocking the next one to a foot.

Stenson gave back the shot he’d picked up early on by missing a tiddler at the par-3 fourth and turned in level-par 36 – one more than Mickelson. Grace was hanging in. So, too, was Englishman John Parry, the first-round pacesetter. But, as the final few groups started the back nine, Hansen’s amazing recovery reached a new level as he moved to 17-under with his seventh birdie in eight holes at the tenth to move into the lead.

At that point, around 5pm, only one player among those already in the clubhouse had broken 70 – a three-under 69 by German Marcel Siem catapulting him up the leaderboard to 11-under. As the wind started to ease a bit, though, it soon became evident that would not be the winning score.

Responding positively to Hansen’s thrust, Stenson started for home with back-to-back birdies to regain top spot. Hanging in there, Mickelson birdied the 11th and 12th to stay within a shot of his playing partner. Another Hansen birdie – at the 14th – drew him level with Stenson on 18-under but both then dropped shots almost simultaneously.

The door had been opened for Mickelson. A booming drive down the 14th, a splendid chip to eight feet and, boom, Lefty was in the lead on 18-under. Marc Warren had hit the front at the same stage 12 months earlier. It may not have been a Scot on this occasion, but the Phil fans in the home gallery were praying that history wasn’t going to repeat itself.

Hansen almost got back into a share of the lead once more. But his eight-foot birdie putt at the 16th lipped out. It effectively ended his brave bid. The Challenge Tour graduate suddenly ran out of steam, which was perhaps no surprise given the effort and energy it had taken to claw his way back from that early calamity.

He dropped shots at the last two holes for a 71 – one of the more adventurous rounds of golf in the history of the European Tour. While he finished as the leading non-exempt player, Hansen missed out on an Open spot as that only went to the winner on this occasion. With Mickelson already in the Muirfield line-up, American Scott Stallings can now expect a pleasing phone call as first reserve.

When Stenson also faltered with bogeys at the 16th and 17th, only Grace was left as Mickelson’s threat after he came home in 32 for a 69, setting the clubhouse target of 17-under. Even the South African probably thought that wasn’t going to be good enough when Mickelson, after coming up short with his tee shot to the penultimate hole, chipped to six feet and saved par.

With wife Amy and the rest of the Mickelson clan watching from the balcony of the sponsor’s pavilion, it seemed as though the walk down the last would be a victory march for Phil. And it should have been after he safely found the green with his third at the par-5. From no more than 20 feet away, however, he raced his first putt four feet past then missed the one back. It was agonising to watch but, thankfully, the big man made amends in the play-off.

It was quite a finale. Whereas it had been 64 in all three of the previous rounds, a four-under-par 68 by Martin Laird was the day’s best score. “I don’t think anyone would be saying too easy if you had blowy conditions like this all the time,” observed the Scot in summing up why Castle Stuart shouldn’t be categorised as a soft touch.

Lawrie maddened by poor putting as he heads for Open

PAUL Lawrie reckons his cold putting streak has become as much a mental challenge as anything technically wrong with his stroke as he heads for his favourite Open Championship course.

As he’s the first to admit, the Aberdonian sounds like a stuck record these days and, after four frustrating days at Castle Stuart, the needle still hasn’t budged.

“It was the same as it’s been pretty much all week, all year,” reported Lawrie of his closing 71 for a four-over-par total. “I played lovely today, but I think I had two single-putts – one from about six feet, the other about 20 feet.”

The statistics told their own story. After 30 putts in each of the two opening rounds, he also produced matching efforts of 33 on the closing two days.

“There isn’t anything I haven’t tried, to be honest,” he added. “I hit a few cack-handed today, but it’s not that. I’m not yipping it. I’ve not got a problem with my stroke.

“I hit some nice putts today that just missed, hit a few shockers, too, but you expect that on a windy day. They’re just not going in.

“It’s now as much a head thing as it is a technical thing. If I get a wee nine holes, even, where I hole four or five, that would be great. Even a day when you don’t play very well and get three-under out of it can spring you on.

“But it’s just been so frustrating. It’s doing my head in, but that’s golf – that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Better news for Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion, as he heads into this week’s event at Muirfield is that the back and groin issues that led to him pulling out of the French Open seem to have cleared up.

“Fitness-wise I’m perfect,” reported the 44-year-old, who opened with a 65 at Lytham 12 months ago, but finished in a tie for 34th. “I’ve not hit one shot this week where it felt iffy. I was sore on Monday, but it’s been fine since then.”

Lawrie insisted Castle Stuart had been “perfect preparation” for a “bouncy” Muirfield, where the Aberdonian played in his first Open in 1992.

Marc Warren, who is also East Lothian-bound, signed off with a 71 as well to finish on six-under, one ahead of Greig Hutcheon (74).

David Drysdale (75) ended on four-under alongside Lawrie, Scott Henry’s 74 left him on three-under, while Craig Lee, on two-over, had only Lee Slattery below him after disasters of 77 and 76.

Gary Orr, the other home player to survive the halfway cut, retired after six holes of his final round due to a recurring back injury.