Let us not reproach Lee Westwood for failing to convert on the final day of a major, but raise a glass to the marvellous Phil Mickelson, who did as the book of fable demands and ripped through the field to claim the greatest prize in golf. Mickelson plays golf on the edge of recklessness. He went for the big shots when the ordeal was at its height and pulled it off. Four birdies over the closing six holes for a 66 deserve everything they get on the Sunday of an Open Championship. The Claret Jug goes to a worthy home.
Westwood offered neither complaint nor excuse. He did not play well enough, hit some poor shots at critical moments and was powerless to arrest the slide when momentum began to slip away. Were it not for the putter it might have been worse. Westwood holed more than his share, including two great bogey saves on seven and eight, and a lag putt on nine after being plugged in sand for the third successive hole.
As he left the scene with his arm around his son, you wanted to believe him when he said this latest reverse would not cost him a wink of sleep. Really? This had to hurt, especially as the presentation ceremony was playing out on a monitor beside him as he talked us through his experience. “I wanted to end on the 18 green like that,” he said pointing at the celebrations. “Third in a major is a pretty good week. I don’t really get disappointed with golf anymore. I would not have done anything differently. I got myself into the last group on the Sunday at the Open, which was a new experience for me and where any professional golfer wants to be. I really enjoyed it. Some days it just doesn’t happen.”
It is not the first time Mickelson has denied Westwood a place among the elite. And just as he did at the Masters three years ago, Mickelson soared on the back of outrageous elan. Hitched to this have-a-go credo Mickelson turned a five-shot deficit into a three-shot victory. “I don’t care how I got this trophy. It just so happened to be one of the best rounds of my career. Throughout my career I’ve always tried to go out and get it. I don’t want anybody to hand it to me. I want to go and get it and I did.”
It doesn’t always happen like this. A month ago he walked in the footsteps of Westwood, leading the US Open, a tournament he has never won, by one shot. It proved an advantage he could not defend against the precision assault of Justin Rose. “You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it. After losing the US Open and being so down this is a huge difference in emotion as you can imagine. I could easily have gone south, where I was so deflated that I would have a hard time coming back. But I used it as a springboard and in a month changed entirely the way I feel.”
Here it was Westwood who fell back under the weight of chasing the impossible dream. He led by two at the start of play and three after six holes. By the turn the lead had gone and thus began an inexorable slide. The weather that had glowed hot all week fell away in sympathy, cloaking Muirfield in a dense, grey chill. And Westwood was not the only one who felt it. The challenge of Tiger Woods, playing in the penultimate group with Adam Scott, faded from the first hole, which he bogeyed to fall back to even par. There would be three more bogeys in a flat 74.
Having sank four birdies in five holes around the turn to lead by one with seven to play, Scott thought that this might be his day. Incredibly, just as he did a year ago at Lytham, Scott rattled off four bogeys in a row. There would be a birdie at the last but by then the tournament was heading to California. Mickelson utterly inverted convention. The back nine on Sunday are supposed to be golf’s greatest ordeal. Four birdies bagged over Muirfield’s closing six holes ranks alongside smuggling the crown jewels out of the Tower.
The Open is Mickelson’s fifth major victory and comes a week after he plundered the Highlands to take the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart. “Winning at Castle Stuart was a big win for me, but in seven days it has gone down considerably. Just to capture this championship, the hardest of my career to win, and to be part of the history of this event, is awesome.”
Winning back to back is not easy he explained before a ball was kicked, but then again he added, you are looking at the last guy to do it. In fact he was wrong about that. Woods has sat on that honour since 2007, claiming the US PGA title a week after winning the Bridgestone. Mickelson did the double in 2006 when he followed the Bell South Classic with his second Masters crown.
This, he said, is as good as it gets because he had to play as well as he is able to win it. The two 3-woods he hit to reach the green on 17 were the best he has hit in his life, he said. He knew then the tournament was his. A championship he has struggled to master since first playing links golf at the Walker Cup in 1991 had finally come to him at the age of 43. The emotions began to well with the realisation of that as he strode on to the penultimate green. “I had to take a second to slow down my walk and try to regain composure. Because not only do I still need to two-putt birdie, I also need to a tough par on 18. Fortunately I made birdie on both.”