Saturday 21 October 2017

Phil's finest Claret

Mickelson discovers secret of the seaside to blow away star cast with 'best round' of his illustrious career

Phil Mickelson of the U.S. holds the Claret Jug as he celebrates with his wife Amy
Phil Mickelson of the U.S. holds the Claret Jug as he celebrates with his wife Amy

Karl MacGinty at Muirfield

Phil Mickelson has joined the pantheon of golf, etching his name not just onto the Claret Jug, but into legend with one of the greatest final rounds in history.

Mickelson (43) was utterly magnificent as he obliterated his rivals with a mercurial 66, which he described as "the best round of my career and probably the most fulfilling."

Seven days after winning for the first time on a seaside links, Castle Stuart, where he was crowned Scottish Open champion, Mickelson achieved true greatness in the oldest Major of them all on one of his sport's most sacred stamping grounds.

Those privileged enough to be at Muirfield to see the Californian land his fifth Major title witnessed both folklore and magic in the making as Mickelson came from five shots behind overnight leader Lee Westwood to beat his closest challenger, Swede Henrik Stenson by three.

After a summer in which Justin Rose left Mickelson crestfallen at Merion by winning the US Open and Andy Murray romped home at Wimbledon, Britain expected Westwood to lift the Claret Jug.

Instead, Westwood had to come to terms with the feeling of his eighth third-place finish at the Majors after a lacklustre final-round 75 dropped him into a tie with Ian Poulter and Adam Scott on one-over par, four behind the inspired winner.

TOUGH

The 40-year-old Englishman said: "I didn't really play well enough today. I didn't play badly, but I didn't play great. It's a tough course and you have to have your 'A' game."

Westwood is all too familiar with the pain of losing the lead to Mickelson on the final day of a Major, having led after 54-holes at the 2010 Masters only to be overtaken by the hard-charging American on Sunday afternoon.

"I'm not too disappointed," said the Worksop man but nobody believed him.

Tiger Woods had another anonymous Sunday at the Majors. Once again, his putter failed him as a 74 left Tiger tied sixth on two-over.

Woods may be the greatest player of all time, but Mickelson, blessed with sporting genius, a swashbuckling spirit and the desire to share great moments with the public, is the true people's champion of golf.

In succeeding Darren Clarke and Ernie Els as the third player in his forties to win the British Open, Mickelson leapfrogged Rory McIlroy into No 2 behind Woods in the world rankings. McIlroy's star has long been hitched to that of Woods, but there could be no greater role model for the beleaguered Holywood native on and off the course, than Mickelson.

Missing last Friday's halfway cut by four after following an abject eight-over-par 79 with a poor 75, further drained McIlroy's confidence and the 24-year-old has a mountain to climb if he's to make a worthy defence of his US PGA title in just 17 days' time.

The only left-hander to win the British Open since Bob Charles became the first citeog to claim a Major title at Lytham in 1963, Mickelson has now won three of golf's four great championships.

If he could learn the shots and discover the strategy to prevail in teasing sea breezes; on rock-hard fairways and mystical links greens, he surely can win his native US Open and join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on the short list of golfers to complete a career Grand Slam.

Recalling his first ever experience of playing links golf at the 1991 Walker Cup in Portmarnock, which he described yesterday as "a wonderful test," Mickelson went on: "But the conditions and the penalty for missed shots in The Open are much more severe than we played then.

"It took me a while to figure it out," added the American, who earlier in the week bluntly described his relationship with seaside golf as "hate and love ... I hated it at first, but love it now.

"I'd say it's been the last eight or nine years I've started playing it more effectively.

"But even then, it's so different than what I grew up playing, I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship."

By emerging with the Claret Jug from one of the toughest weeks in recent memory at the British Open and add his name to those of Braid, Hagen, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Flado and Els on the cast of champions at Muirfield, Mickelson has earned the ultimate endorsement for the links golfer.

After compiling rounds of 69 and 74 in McIlroy's company last Thursday and Friday, Mickelson was unhappy with his ball-striking.

So he underwent a comprehensive session with coach Butch Harmon and, after an unspectacular third-round 72, everything just "clicked into place" yesterday.

Delighted to go through the turn in two-under yesterday and get himself back to even-par for the championship, Mickelson said: "It was a cool feeling when I made birdie at nine. I knew then I was in contention with a good shot."

After making his only bogey of the day on 10, the key moment arrived for Mickelson on the par three 13th. "I hit a really good five-iron in there and I knew it was a putt that was going to make the rest of the round go one way or another," he said of the crucial 10-footer he made there.

As Westwood lost momentum with back-to-back bogeys at seven and eight and a stunning Sunday afternoon charge by Poulter, featuring an eagle at nine and three successive birdies, petered out, Masters champion Adam Scott grabbed the lead with a hat-trick of birdies through the turn and another at 11.

Suddenly it seemed as if the Australian would earn perfect compensation for his nightmare collapse at Lytham, where he bogeyed the final four holes and made a gift of the Claret Jug to Els.

ALONE

So, there was a horrible sense of deja vu as Scott dropped four shots in succession at 13, 14, 15 and 16. So, as Westwood slipped-up once again on 13, Mickelson suddenly found himself alone in the lead after making birdie at 14 and a couple of "good pars" at 15 and 16.

A birdie at the last would earn Scott that share of third place, though Mickelson's brilliance down the stretch literally eclipsed the opposition and ensured this overcast day on the Firth of Forth would burn brilliantly in the memory of all present.

The American idol set up a ripping climax with a wonderful birdie at 17. He literally blasted his ball into the teeth of the wind and onto the green at this par five with two mighty blows of that famous 'strong' three-wood which has replaced the driver in his bag.

The tee shot flew 270 yards onto the fairway and the next 303 yards to within 20 feet of the flag. Two putts later, Mickelson was two ahead as he walked to the 18th tee, but there was never any question of this guy reining in his aggression.

He launched his hybrid down the fairway and then hit a wonderful six-iron to 12 feet before draining the birdie putt.

It was the perfect conclusion to one of the greatest final rounds in history, a fitting rival for Johnny Miller's 63 at the 1973 US Open; Tom Watson's 65 to win the 'Duel in the Sun' with Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 and that iconic 69 by Seve at St Andrews in 1984.

Simply unforgettable!

Irish Independent

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