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Mickelson Rewrites Legacy with Open Win

From “Huff’s Stuff” Arizona Golf Blog by Bill Huffman at the Arizona Golf Authority

mickelson-open-champion-claret-jug-photoPhil Mickelson’s victory at the 142nd Open Championship on Sunday was pure shock and awe. Even more than that, it changed the perception we have of the player I’ve always considered the People’s Choice.

Seriously, I can’t think of a bigger moment in a major championship since Jack Nicklaus captured the 1986 Masters at the age of 46. Not even Mickelson’s first win at the Masters in 2004 — when he broke a 12-year, zero-for-46 drought in the majors — was more captivating or improbable.

“The best round of my career,” Lefty proudly proclaimed in the aftermath of his three-shot victory over Sweden’s Henrik Stenson at magical Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland, where he came from five shots back in the pack with a sterling 66 to snatch the Claret Jug.

“I hit some of the best shots I’ve ever hit, and certainly it was my best round putting. . . . I never knew if I’d be able to win this tournament. I hoped and I believed, but you never know . . . until about an hour ago.”

It’s the thing that people love the most about Phil: He tells it from the heart, and doesn’t mind giving us those extra details that make his most personal thoughts our thoughts. It’s why he’s the modern day Arnold Palmer, and why even those who don’t play the game admire him.

Sure, Mickelson won his fifth major and moved to No. 2 in the world behind Tiger Woods, but even more than that, Phil established himself as the most interesting man in the world when it comes to golf.

I mean, had third-round leader Lee Westwood prevailed, it would have been a good story, the Brit’s first major, especially at his country’s Open. Or had Woods claimed his 15th major after a five-year drought, yeah, that would have been good stuff. Even the other guy who grabbed the lead during the final round, Australia’s Adam Scott, would have been compelling had he added the Open title to this year’s green jacket just a year after Scott blew the British to Ernie Els.

Instead, we got the rarest of moments, where “Phil the Thrill,” the guy who has experienced more heartbreaks in the majors than all of the above, gave us a homestretch run that was one for the ages. Yes, only the golf gods fully understand how difficult it was to make birdie on four of the last six holes of a golf course that was as slick as the back of a Cadillac.

First, there was the birdie at the 13th, a putt that the reigning Waste Management Phoenix Open champ said was pivotal.

“I was behind, obviously, the whole day, and I was 1 over for the championship, and I hit a really good 5-iron in there,” Mickelson said of the shot that set up the 10-foot birdie. “It was a putt that was going to make the rest of the round go one way or another.”

This time, in his 20th appearance in the Open, it finally went Phil’s way, and he added another birdie at No. 14 for a share of the lead. That was followed by a huge save from seven feet after he got a bad break at the par-3 16th. Then, while walking down the 17th fairway after just hitting back-to-back “career 3-woods” that left him putting for eagle from 35 feet, it suddenly dawned on Mickelson that he was in the driver’s seat.

“As I was walking up to the green at 17, that was when I realized this was very much my championship, in my control, and I was getting a little emotional,” he revealed in a statement you would never hear come out of the mouth of Tiger.

“I had to kind of take a second to slow down my walk, and try to regain my composure, because not only do I still need a two-putt birdie, but I also needed to make a tough par on 18, and I fortunately made birdie on both.”

mickelson-open-family-harmon-loy-bones-group-photoThat’s where the tournament really became unique TV, as first Mickelson first embraced his long-time caddie, Jim Mackay, in what led to tears from the guy better known as “Bones.” Then, one by one, his three kids that look an awful lot like their father, jumped into his arms followed by his wife, Amy. That the family laughed and cried while scrumming for a good minute or so also was a photographer’s dream. And then Lefty grabbed long-time agent Steve Loy and well-known coach Butch Harmon to complete what was terrific theatre.

Think you’d ever see such a parade of humanity from Westwood or Woods or even Scott for that matter? And that’s what makes Mickelson so different from all of his peers.

Asked by the Golf Channel why he was crying so hard, Bones said what a lot of people were thinking: “It was for Phil. “

When Amy was interviewed later, she said that despite all the doubts about her husband’s chances in the Open, where he had but two top-10s and missed four cuts, including the last one, she always believed.

“He’s always optimistic, always thinks he can get it done,” she said, adding that when Phil left the house Sunday morning he told her, “I’m going to get us a Claret Jug.”

Mickelson’s sunshine attitude, the one that some people have questioned for its sincerity but now we know is as real as his never-ending smile, also was reflected to Harmon, who said he had told Mickelson prior to the round that he needed to get to even par or 1 under if he wanted to have a chance on Sunday.

“He said, ‘I’m going to be better than that,’ ” Harmon related, adding, “He wasn’t lying.”

And so Mickelson joined Seve Ballesteros, Byron Nelson and Peter Thomson on the all-time list with his fifth major, leaving 12 players still ahead of him. Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo are next on that list with six majors, and it would be conceivable that Lefty can still catch Tom Watson (eight majors) or Gary Player and Ben Hogan (nine each) if he truly is, as he says, “Playing the best golf of my career.”

Sure, Mickelson never is going to pass Walter Hagen (11 majors) or Tiger (14) or Jack Nicklaus (18), but here is an interesting stat: Since he won his first Masters back in 2004, Phil’s won five majors to Tiger’s six. And considering how dominant Woods has been in the modern era, I, for one, think that elevates Mickelson’s status as a player considerably.

Chances are Mickelson might be a little burnt out when he plays in the PGA Championship next month at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. After all, this is whirlwind stuff, and when last seen Phil had yet to release his clutch on the Claret Jug. (Yeah, he’s going to hang on for quite awhile.)

But I do like his chances at the next U.S. Open, which takes place next June on his 44th birthday at a place he is very familiar with, Pinehurst No. 2. Who can forget his epic battle with Payne Stewart there in 1999, when Mickelson, waiting nervously for his first child, watched in disbelief as Stewart made a 22-foot birdie on the final hole for the win. Four months later, Stewart was dead from a fatal Lear-jet crash.

As we all know, Mickelson has had five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open since then, including one last month at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, which makes him the player with the most near-misses ever in the national championship. Or as Phil said about the U.S. Open in reference to the possibility of joining Nicklaus, Woods, Player, Hogan and Gene Sarazen, as the only players to ever win the career Grand Slam: “I’m a leg away. But it’s been a tough leg for me.”

It’s why people love Phil: He treats his failures just like his successes in that he learns from both, as Arnie once did. And Mickelson had an insightful response when a reporter asked him how he was able to bounce back so quickly after Merion.

“You have to be resilient in this game, because losing is such a big part of it,” he said. “After losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south; where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back.

“But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career. I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year, and some potential great play. I’m glad I didn’t, because I worked a little bit harder, and in a matter of a month, I’m able to change entirely the way I feel.”

Such a positive thought is the difference between Phil and Tiger, and might just be what’s ailing Woods now. The chip on Tiger’s shoulder seems to grow a little bit larger with each setback in the majors, or are we to make something different out of his latest collapse?

Asked by reporters what’s wrong with his game on the big stage, where he has gone 25 over par on the weekend in his last seven majors, Tiger, who had several well-documented, profane-laced tirades on Saturday and Sunday, when he shot 72-74 to finish tied for sixth, got testy: “I’ve won 14 (majors). It’s not like I lost my card and can’t play out here.”

mickelson-open-press-photoObviously, there is a great divide between the game’s two biggest names, and it has nothing to do with the nine majors that Woods has on Mickelson. Tiger might be the greatest golfer of his time, but he’s always guarded and uptight with his world. Mickelson is the game’s greatest personality, giving fans his time while always bearing his good-natured soul. (Have you seen the latest ESPN commercial with Mickelson and Scott Van Pelt? See it!)

Plus, Phil remains humble to the end; Tiger not so much. When asked about his prediction to Amy, that he was going to bring home the Claret Jug, Mickelson made light of it: “I just felt I was playing some of the best golf I’ve ever played, and that we were going to try to get something that we didn’t have, which was a Claret Jug. There were no predictions because you just don’t know what’s going to happen out here.”

Well, now we do, and it was a beautiful thing. Certainly Lefty’s perfectly played victory at Muirfield might go down in history as the defining moment in the career of the game’s greatest left-hander.

Or as Phil put it: “This is just a day and a moment that I will cherish forever. This really is a special time, and as fulfilling a career accomplishment as I could ever imagine.”

Few would argue that no one deserves it more than Phillip Alfred Mickelson.

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