Lagging some way behind the euphoria of an Ashes walloping and the acclaim of Chris Froome’s success in the Tour de France is proper appreciation of a victory that ranks among the finest in the Open Championship, and therefore in golf. The disappointment engendered by Lee Westwood’s faltering challenge also diverted the eye from what was plainly an epic afternoon in the career of Phil Mickelson.
The 3-wood with which he carved open the 17th hole in two flamboyant blows and split the 18th fairway ought to be a museum piece forthwith, a totemic reminder of the derring-do displayed to take a tournament that, at the start of the final round at Muirfield, looked to be anyone’s but his. Victory from five shots back gave him his first Open title and his fifth major championship, which on the evidence of Sunday’s gallop across a course that yielded only one score under par, his, is a ridiculously shallow measure of a talent so profound. Mind you, if he had converted only half of the US Open second places, that figure would be up to a more representative eight.
His national championship remains the only major to have eluded him. He was, of course, runner up to Justin Rose at Merion a month ago after leading at the end of each round bar the last. He followed that with victory at Castle Stuart a week before the taming of Muirfield. The world rankings say he is the second-best player in the world behind Tiger Woods. This past month and that miraculous 3-wood say he is the best by a country mile in the immediacy of now.
You would not bet against him violating Oak Hill next month to claim a second PGA Championship, but the one he really wants, and over which history hovers, is the US Open at Pinehurst next June. Only five golfers in the modern era have won all four majors, and what a list it is: Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. It’s a devil of a job to keep the hot tap on in this game. Just ask Woods, who could not miss in March, April and May. But if ever a golfer deserved to stand at the shoulder of that little lot, it is Mickelson.
“If I’m able to win the US Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that’s the sign of the complete, great player. And I’m a leg away. And it’s been a tough leg for me (laughter). There are five players that have done that. And those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light,” he said.
Mickelson is impervious to doubt, and when the zeitgeist is with him, there is no finer sight on the fairways. The audacity of his attack on a pitch that had them all screaming at some point in the championship utterly defined him. Links play is golf in another language. It took Mickelson the best part of a decade to speak it and only lately has he acquired fluency. The front nine in the tempest breaking over Royal St George’s two years ago – covered in 30 strokes – was, he thought, the best he had ever played at an Open. He briefly held a share of the lead before the spell broke at the short 11th.
Four shots would go over the next six holes, a sequence he reversed at Muirfield after the turbo kicked in at the 13th. He closed three shots clear of the field. “I first played (links golf) at the Walker Cup in ’91 at Portmarnock. It was a wonderful test. I played well. But the conditions and the penalty for missed shots in The Open Championship are much more severe than we played then. And it took me a while to figure it out. It’s so different to what I grew up playing. I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship.”
The vogue these days it to speak about performance in the first person plural. In Mickelson’s case the “we” is very much justified since it refers largely to his caddie of 20 years, Jim – Bones – Mackay. Clearly clan Mickelson: wife, Amy, and the three children that witnessed his win, and coach Butch Harmon are influential, but the material business of hitting balls is the domain of Mickelson and his faithful on-course guide.
“He (Bones) was getting choked up in the locker room. This is really special for both of us. It’s a special moment to be part of the great history of this championship. It’s a great accomplishment for us as a team and for me in my career to win this championship that has been the biggest challenge. We’ve had a partnership from the time I turned pro. It’s very difficult here to pull clubs because you have three different options on every shot.
“You have to not only pull the right club, but you have to describe the right shot. For us to be on the same page, it’s really difficult to do. And we were on the same page all week. There were a few that we were off, like everybody, but there were only a few. We did a good job together. Bones was exceptional. This is a great moment for us.”
And for the game, Phil.
Major masters: Golf’s hall of fame
Players to have won all four majors (US unless stated): Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player (SA), Gene Sarazen.
Players to have won three of the four majors: Phil Mickelson, Walter Hagen, Jim Barnes (Eng), Lee Trevino (Mex), Tommy Armour (US/Sco), Sam Snead, Harold Hilton (Eng), Byron Nelson, Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer.