Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods both eschewed drivers last week at Muirfield, but each player’s flat stick -- and nerve, or lack thereof in Woods’ case, to attack the tricky greens -- was a key difference-maker between the first-time British Open winner and his once-and-future rival, who left his 17th straight major empty-handed.
As Woods was chalking up another over-par Sunday finish, Mickelson was adding the finishing touches to what he termed “the round of my life.” And the 43-year-old owner of five major trophies accomplished the feat by doing something Tiger has never done -- come from behind in the finale to win one of golf’s four greatest prizes.
Mickelson, who had only two top-10 finishes in 19 previous starts at the Open Championship, seemed an afterthought for much of the finale, starting the day five shots back of 54-hole leader Lee Westwood. An opening 2-under 34 on his front nine failed to grab anyone’s attention.
Lefty’s putter heated up down the stretch, when he made four birdies in his final six holes, including back-to-backers on 17 and 18, to card a sizzling 5-under 66 and seal his three-shot victory over Henrik Stenson.
Woods, who came in five shots back after a closing 74 and tied for sixth, had earlier complained about the slow pace of the greens. On Sunday, he again blamed the putting surfaces for his lackluster performance.
His sour grapes, however, also betrayed a lack of self-assurance for the 14-time major winner who, in his heyday, oozed brashness and fortitude.
“I had a hard time adjusting to the speeds. They were much slower today, much softer,” Woods, who came up short on the greens all day, told reporters after his round. “I don't think I got too many putts to the hole today. I really had a hard time and left myself a couple of long lag putts early on when it was really blowing, and left them way short and didn't make those putts.
“I didn't really play that poorly,” Woods contended. “I really hit the ball well today. I was just -- I just couldn't ever get the pace of these things.”
Meanwhile, Mickelson -- a vociferous critic of Muirfield’s firm and fast conditions earlier in the week, until the R&A responded to the gripes and watered the greens -- resolutely rebounded from the heartbreak of losing last month’s U.S. Open.
"He did seem to be really at peace today and very confident with what was going on," Mickelson’s long-time caddie and friend Jim Mackay told BBC Sport. "To go from where he was to the top of the leader board he had to be very calm. He knew he was putting great and putting himself into a position to succeed out there.”
Lefty’s wife Amy, also speaking with the BBC, concurred.
“He's been very calm, he's been enjoying it so much and he always seems to play well when he's having fun,” she said. "He was very confident this morning, relaxed, and excited for the day. He said 'I'm going to bring you home a Claret Jug'. I always have confidence in him but he was especially relaxed today."
Woods, on the other hand, displayed a distinctly edgy demeanor during the final round. No longer the dominant force of nature who left Mickelson and most other challengers in his dust for so many years, refused to buy into the popular theory that the pressure of chasing Jack Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championships had him by the throat.
"I'm very pleased with the way I'm playing, there's no doubt," Woods said. "I'm right there, and I hit a ton of good shots this week, and the only thing that I would look back on this week is I just never got the speed [of the greens] after the first day."
Which is not to say that Woods played all that badly for any golfer not carrying the burden of expectations he does and who was making his first start in a month, after admitting after the U.S. Open that he had hurt his elbow. Indeed, Tiger claimed that, but for the speed of the greens, he would have been in the thick of things with the eventual winner.
But there’s that “but,” which had Woods putting with such trepidation on the same greens that Mickelson torched when it was all on the line.
“It's certainly gettable out there,” Woods said. “The greens are slower and if you have, I guess, the feel to hit it far enough up there into the greens, you can get it done. You can shoot between 3- and 5-under par today.
“But it's having the confidence to throw it far enough in there,” Woods conceded, “because all week they've been bouncing over, if you threw it that deep. Evidently [Mickelson] got a pretty good feel for it and made a few putts.”
For sure, Woods, who’s won four times on tour this season, has the way to get over the hump and win that 15th major so he can continue chipping away at Nicklaus’ record. But it’s his will -- an intangible quality no one ever questioned before his personal life took a toll on his day job -- that appears to be the missing link for the world No. 1.
Perhaps Woods, who has one more opportunity this season, at next month’s PGA Championship, to end his five-year major-less steak, can take a lesson from his intrepid left-handed nemesis.
"You have to be resilient in this game,” Mickelson told BBC Sport about coming back from the anguish of posting a record sixth second-place outcome at the U.S. Open. “You have to accept losses and use it as motivation to work harder and come back strong rather than letting it defeat you."