It's more fun with Phil Mickelson. If Tiger Woods is a Nick Saban-like Alabama machine that clinically gets ahead and destroys you from out front, Phil is like a Dana Holgorsen West Virginia team that could light up the scoreboard and set records, implode at any minute in red-faced fashion, or score 28 points to come from behind in the final five minutes as all watching lose their minds. Excellence, dominance isn't always fun. But with Phil, it is.
On Sunday, Mickelson played the best round of his life -- rolling in birdies on four of the last six holes to run away with the 2013 Open Championship.
Unlike past Phil victories, and implosions, this Sunday drama kind of came out of nowhere. Mickelson had hung around all week, sticking near the first page of the leaderboard, avoiding a major blow-up and steadily saving pars with his improved putter. That was also the case for more than three hours on Sunday, as Phil just settled there a few shots back of the leaders, failing to make a move in what appeared to be a second-straight top-10 finish at a major. With Phil, there's always a build up on Sundays, a four-hour march full of good and bad adventures and with a crescendo of victory or disaster.
But at Muirfield, Mickelson wasn't really the fixture of the Sunday coverage. And then all of a sudden it was over, a three-shot win in the bag built on the greatest round of his life. He hovered, and then bolted through the final six holes for a 5-under 66 that Scotland's own Colin Montgomerie called one of the best in the 142-year history of The Open. Comparing it with Watson's run in 1977 at Turnberry and Greg Norman's 64 at Royal St. George's, Monty went on Golf Channel Sunday night and said Phil's 66 was "as good, if not better than them all. This was one of the greatest rounds of British Open history."
Maybe the out-of-nowhere, final-hour nature of the win is due to Mickelson's own admission that he wasn't cut out for the style of golf at The Open. At the Claret Jug ceremony, Mickelson told the crowd he didn't know if he'd ever have the right game, and shots, equipped for the British Open. "I wasn't confident I'd ever be able to develop the game and skills to conquer links golf," he added to Golf Channel after the round. His high-ball hitting ways usually resulted in middling finishes, his chances blown away in the windy links setups. Unlike the other three majors, it was rare to see Phil on Sunday at The British and he was never a serious contender. So an often off-the-radar Mickelson was just there in the background before blitzing Muirfield's finish in the most Phil way.
Coming off his win at last week's Scottish Open, Mickelson stated in his pre-Open press conference that he had found his "secret" to putting. But he also continued to leave his driver at home, a move he's made several times in the past and this week, opting for five wedges at Muirfield. That left him with nothing but a three-wood on the gettable par-5 17th hole. As Phil does, he went for it with back-to-back laser three-woods on the hole that he had to think would be the deciding moment of the championship. He said they were the two best three-woods of his career and the result was a tap-in birdie for the lead, which he owned for the rest of the day as the players behind him fizzled out.
Given the conditions, the round of 5-under 66 will go down in history as one of the best ever. It's just amazing that it all came together in one burst over the final hour of coverage.
"It was the biggest challenge of my career," he said to Todd Lewis while clutching the Claret Jug. "It was always the tournament where I had the hardest time playing my best. And yet, I've played probably the best round of my career here in the final round of the British Open."
The stretch ensured that Phil would finish as the only player under par on a Muirfield course that was baked, then watered, and then fanned out by the wind.
The 66 number seemed unimaginable on the weekend, but Jason Sobel thinks that Phil even played a role in the changing course conditions:
The genius of Phil: Complains about setup Thursday. Other players agree. R&A responds. Waters course. Easier for guy who struggles on links.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 21, 2013
There's no doubt Phil had agenda with Thursday's post-round comments. Helped manipulate potential strategy around Muirfield. Brilliant plan.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 21, 2013
Not suggesting he wouldn't/couldn't have won without R&A watering course. But he got what he wanted. More benefit mentally than otherwise.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 22, 2013
And don't me wrong: Manipulation has negative connotations, but Phil knows how to work the system. Even just a little bit. Smart man.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 22, 2013
Mickelson often overthinks things that result in fantastic and hilarious explosions, but he did get the ball rolling on the course critique Thursday afternoon ... and almost everyone hopped on. That didn't have much to do with how he played Sunday, but as Sobel notes, it may have been of some mental comfort on a links setup where he's not traditionally comfortable.
So what's next for the new No. 2 in the world? The white whale of his career is America's national championship, a major win that once seemed inevitable. But Mickelson claims he's playing the best golf of his life, this proclamation coming on the other side of age 40 and just a few years after it looked like arthritis might set the sun early. It might be hard to disagree with him after the two-week, two-win stay in Scotland that came just a month after the "heartbreaking" Sunday fade at Merion.
It was at that U.S. Open in June where Mickelson canned an eagle from the middle of the fairway, a shot that would finally be the Sunday clincher for the five-time runner-up. But he went ahead an airmailed another wedge off the tee at Merion's par-3 13th, the easiest hole on the course that was playing right around 100 yards all week. It was another brutal close call and it looked like it would define his 2013 season. His comments and demeanor after the round displayed a sense of unrecoverable defeat. Phil being Phil, at the next major he makes a Sunday come-from-behind charge and shoots his best finish at an event that didn't seem winnable for his game.
The comparisons of Phil to Tiger, on anything from personal life exploits to their golf swings, are lazy, trite and dangerous (and also ground that's well-worn). There's plenty of contending golf and major championship drama ahead for both players, who have swatted away a generation of younger challengers and are now back to 1-2 in the world. Tiger will get his. But right now, it's just more fun with Phil.