Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 21, 2013

At Long Last, Phil Learns To Love Links Golf

If there is a single sport in which outcomes are nearly impossible to predict surely it is professional golf. A contest played out over four long days under varying weather conditions on a field of play typically covering hundreds of acres has so many variables that informed prognostication is actually just blind speculation. Yet fans always want to know, so the assembled pundits willingly oblige. What was surprising before the final round of this year’s Open Championship was the uniformity of opinion, as member after member of the golfing media proclaimed that only two men had a realistic chance of becoming Champion Golfer of the Year. The two players so favored by the pundits were Englishman Lee Westwood and American Tiger Woods.

Westwood was the 54-hole leader who began the day at 3-under par, two shots clear of the field. At age 40, the European Tour stalwart has 39 professional wins around the globe, but he was playing in his 62nd major event without winning once. Surely, the conventional wisdom went, Westwood’s time had at last arrived. Woods started the final round tied for second at 1-under par. The 37-year old has successfully rebuilt his swing for the second time in his career, returned to his familiar spot atop the Official World Golf Rankings and already won four PGA Tour events this year. Driven above all else by his desire to beat the Nicklaus record of 18 major championships, and beginning the final round just two back had to mean that if Westwood stumbled Woods would be there to seize the title.

If the experts were surprisingly united in dismissing the chances of every other golfer in the field, including the eight other players who began the day within five shots of the lead; then everyone familiar with golf, from media maven to casual fan, could say one thing with absolute certitude. The one golfer who was not going to win was Phil Mickelson. For two decades now it has been accepted wisdom throughout the sport that Mickelson’s aerial game and his go for broke approach are both profoundly ill-suited to links golf. When the wind blows on a seaside course launching the ball up into it is a recipe for disaster. When dried-out fairways turn firm and fast the smart golfer reins it in, for danger lurks everywhere on a links layout, from gorse to heather to seemingly bottomless pot bunkers. As one of the leading golfers in the world throughout his professional career, and as driven as any to win majors, Mickelson would never think of skipping the oldest of the four. But time after time, through nineteen previous appearances, Mickelson was beaten, often badly, by the layouts that comprise the Open rota. If that history weren’t enough, then surely this year, still fresh off the bitter heartbreak of yet another runner-up finish at the U.S. Open, Mickelson could not be expected to summon the energy and focus for four grinding rounds at a major.

All of which simply goes to prove that if there is a single sport in which outcomes are nearly impossible to predict surely it is professional golf. Because with what Lefty himself proclaimed to be quite possibly the best round of his life, Phil Mickelson has taken possession of the Claret Jug.

The little town of Gullane lies along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, some twenty miles east of Edinburgh. It is home to Muirfield, one of the most demanding courses upon which the Open is contested. This was the sixteenth Open at Muirfield, which hosted its first in 1892. It is a course with a reputation for crowning worthy champions. The winners of the eight previous Opens in Gullane, dating to 1948, all had two things in common. Each was a multiple major winner, and each is now in the World Golf Hall of Fame. With Mickelson’s stirring triumph, in which he went from five shots adrift at the start of the round to three strokes clear by the end of the day, make that nine such illustrious winners in a row.

This Open turned on two defining passages. The first came midway through Sunday’s competition. Westwood couldn’t find a fairway off the tee on the front nine, but time and again his putter saved him. Then the normally sharp ball-striker came undone over the course of a disastrous forty minutes. At the par-3 7th his tee shot ballooned in the wind and nearly buried in a pot bunker short of the green. On his first attempt at escape the ball caught the bunker’s steep face and fell back into the sand, nearly diving into Westwood’s footprint. His second effort rolled out onto the green, and the overnight leader sank a lengthy putt to save a bogey. At the par-4 8th he again missed the fairway with his drive, and from the hay his second found another bunker, leading to another bogey. Finally on the par-5 9th hole, playing dead downwind and thus one of the easiest holes on the course, Westwood finished the front a perfect zero for seven in fairways hit. The errant tee shot robbed him of any chance at birdie. While he didn’t drop another shot to par, his five effectively cost him a stroke to nearly everyone else in the field.

The effect of Westwood’s stumbles was to open the tournament to nearly everyone on a very crowded leader board. At one point one of the ESPN talking heads suggested the Open was headed for an eight-person playoff. At the time the joking comment seemed more than a little plausible. But on the inward half Muirfield took the measure of player after player. Aside from Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods all had their chances, and the course laid out by Old Tom Morris rebuffed them all. Then Mickelson claimed the Open over the course of two holes.

With consecutive birdies at the 13th and 14th Lefty moved to red numbers for the tournament, tied with Westwood and one behind Scott. Even as Mickelson was striking his tee shot at the par-3 16th Scott was finding trouble and an eventual bogey at the 13th. Mickelson was rightly pleased with his effort which found the elevated green twenty feet below the hole. But the putting surface at the 16th has a false front, and as he watched in disbelief from the tee Mickelson’s ball rolled back off the green and well down a slope, leaving a fiendishly difficult chip.

Mickelson has lately described his relationship with links golf as love/hate, saying “I used to hate it and now I love it.” In his first interview after the Open he allowed that as he stood on the 16th tee he “wasn’t feeling love.” But where in years past Mickelson would be undone by the vagaries of links golf, on Sunday afternoon he rose to the challenge. A brilliant chip from his position below the green stopped six feet past the hole, and he calmly sank the par-saving putt.

His drive on the penultimate par-5 split the middle of the fairway, leaving him 302 yards from the hole. Even as the television announcers were discussing his best options for a layup Mickelson took his 3-wood from caddy Bones Mackay. After his renowned shot from the pine straw at Augusta’s 13th in 2010, he was asked about the difference between a great shot and a smart one. Mickelson famously said “A great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try.” He has hit thousands of great shots in his career, and had more than a few times when his many fans wound up wishing he had opted for a smart one. With the wind in his teeth and trouble all around the 17th green, Mickelson added to his highlight reel of thrilling moments. The ball leapt off the face of the 3-wood, flew down the fairway over some cross-bunkers, bounded hard off a down slope and didn’t stop rolling until it was on the putting surface. The ensuing two-putt birdie, even as the other contenders were falling away, placed the Claret Jug in Mickelson’s grasp.

On the 16th hole he refused to lose the Open. On the 17th he won it. When his 6-iron approach to the 18th curled to a stop twelve feet past the cup, everyone watching knew that there was one remaining birdie to be made, giving Mickelson a 66 and matching the lowest round of the tournament. After that final birdie he embraced the English-born Mackay, who was in tears. As the remaining groups played in, and the engraver began the job of etching his name on the base of golf’s most famous trophy, Phil the Thrill joined Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers since 1980 to win at least three different major championships. With five majors in total he stands second only to Woods among active players. All by winning an event that everyone who knows golf knew he would never win.

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Responses

  1. Very nice, thanks!


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