On Sunday afternoon about thirty minutes after Phil Mickelson accepted the Claret Jug from the R&A upon winning the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, I starting penning my weekly congratulatory letter to the latest winner on the professional golfing circuit. It’s a PGA of America tradition; the President sends a note to the winners on behalf of our Association.
This particular letter was easy to write. Mickelson’s emotional victory was arguably the best of his career, if not the most unlikely. When someone suggested to me last week that Phil might win the British Open, I scoffed and said, “Are you kidding? What are the odds? He just won the Scottish Open and you think this guy, who never plays well on links courses, will do it twice in a row? No way,” I said.
I would even go as far to say that the last two weeks have been the best of Lefty’s professional golf career. Give the guy credit. He went to Scotland, put himself out there and worked hard to adapt his game to true links golf. He had the fortitude to do this after yet another heart break less than a month ago at the U.S. Open. Make no mistake, behind that patented Mickelson smile is a solid wall of toughness.
He won the Open Championship with the same style and flair that Jack Nicklaus captured the 1987 Masters. Mickelson bolted out of the pack somewhere in the middle of the round. He was five shots back heading into Sunday and was listed at 20 to 1 by the British bookies. He overcame some bad luck on the 16th hole. Then he hit two gargantuan shots into the par five 17th hole and converted a two-putt birdie.
Even when he went to the tee at the 18th and flashed a confident smile, there was still doubt as to whether Phil could finish it off. Remember Winged Foot? Could he avoid a mishap in a fairway bunker? He did that and more. When he rolled in the birdie putt on final green, it was over. Sure, there were groups left on the course, but they would be like late callers at their own wake when they arrived to Muirfield’s 18th green. This championship was dead and buried.
It was Mickelson’s fifth major title. He joins Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros in that elite club. Phil has now won three of golf’s four majors, excluding the elusive U.S.Open where he has finished runner-up six times. There is something about those painful losses such as the one at Merion that make this guy even more lovable.
After he sank the winning putt at Muirfield, he walked off the green and embraced his wife, Amy, and their three kids with a prolonged hug. Mickelson defintely married up. Amy is one of the classiest Tour wives and is no doubt Phil’s rock during his lowest times, which post-Merion definitely was.
Then to kill time while his nearest challengers finished, he signed hundreds of autographs near the clubhouse. That’s a Mickelson trademark at every Tour event. Before he leaves the property, he will spend a couple of hours signing. Is there any wonder why people love this guy?
Speaking of five majors- that is still the magic number before Tiger Woods can pass Nicklaus for the all-time major championship title. Think about this. Five majors is a career for Mickelson, Ballesteros and Nelson. Here’s another interesting tidbit. Woods has never won a major when trailing after three rounds. Nicklaus, on the other hand, trailed heading into the final round on eight occasions in his 18 major championship wins.
Woods and Mickelson now sit atop the World Golf Rankings as #1 and #2, respectively. It’s hard to gauge the intensity of their rivalry nowadays. These are veterans who have accomplished a variety of things in their careers. Woods once owned the head-to-head match-up in the majors. The scale has tilted in Phil’s favor in the past few years. Both players have distinct fan bases. To their credit, it’s pretty amazing that two veterans are still dominating the sport at this stage in their careers.
It was a tough week for Peter Dawson and his constituents from the R&A. They were severely scrutinized by the press for Muirfield’s men only membership. This was a hot political topic in Scotland. It’s the 21st Century and way overdue that these clubs drop their discriminatory practices.
What a shame it would be to see a classic venue such as Muirfield fall from the rotation. The R&A should not be forced to make that decision. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Muirfield, Troon and St. Andrews.
Finally, Tom Watson was in the field at Muirfield evaluating his American troops in preparation for the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland. Watson told me that he was looking for guys who can handle the pressure.