The storylines were already written in pencil, ready to be inked in the Sunday evening papers.
There were three options: Woods gains ground on Nicklaus’s shadow. Or Westwood escapes past demons. Or the common refrain of the past five years: Woods still not the Woods of old. Those were the stories the golf world was prepared to tell on Monday Morning.
Then Phil Mickelson stepped to the 13th tee, and reminded everyone that when The Open comes to Muirfield, there’s always magic. And the best always rise to that summit of the Scottish summer.
Mickelson started the day five shots back from Lee Westwood, a distant thunder that hardly seemed to threaten the top of the leaderboard. Even as Mickelson continued to play the back nine, the tournament was wide open, with Westwood and Adam Scott at the helm, both exercising demons of British Open past.
Then Phil birdied the 13th. The par three would only be birdied by nine golfers all day. The scoring average was 3.21. 20 others had bogeyed the difficult test. But Mickelson circled a two.
Then he stepped to the 14th. The Open’s participants surrendered 21 bogeys to the par four throughout the day, and even more curse words and exasperated sighs. But not Mickelson –he carded one of the six birdies that flew through the fourteenth on Sunday.
The tide was changing. Overcast clouds hung over a course that had seen three days of unseasonable, un-Scottish, summer sun. But something hung over the oft-tortured shoulders of players like Westwood, Scott, and Tiger Woods –Phil’s shadow.
After two pars, the dagger struck on the 17th. For the entire day, the Open had been a wide open door, with an entire leaderboard in contention. But when Mickelson’s second-shot found the green on the long par five, he slammed that door shut. He birdied his third of five holes, the crowd erupted. It was all but over.
Mickelson could’ve played it safe. But instead, he finished strong, cementing perhaps the best final six holes in major history. Only seven golfers had birdied the 18th; 17 would bogey it. But Mickelson became the eighth to circle a four on the scorecard. His fists entered the air. And like a gust of wind from the Firth of Forth, a hair-raising eruption spewed from the crowd.
He’d done the impossible. He’d won his first Claret Jug only a month after his heartbreak at the US Open. He’d made us forget about Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood on a day where they were set to dominate the headlines. But something even more special had happened in that final round.
The crowd, in Scotland and on couches across the world, had just witnessed Muirfield’s finest moment.
And that’s saying something. Muirfield has always been the home of legends. It’s last seven Open Champions that secured the title on the shores of East Lothian were the biggest of names: Ernie Els, Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player had hoisted the Claret Jug on those hallowed grounds. And yet none of them had done anything quite like this.
Mickelson made the last six holes, despite the pressure of The Open on his shoulders, look easy on his way to a -4 finish down that stretch. Meanwhile, the rest of the top 25 penciled the following scores in the same span of holes: E, +1, +3, +2, -1, +1, E, +2, -2, -2, -1, E, +1, E, E, -2, +3, E, +2, +2. That’s an average of 20.4 shots, an average of over-par play. Not one of them came close to touching Lefty’s performance.
The Final Round score of 66 tied the lowest 18-hole mark of the week (with Zach Johnson), and was good enough to be Sunday’s best. Only one other golfer within 10 shots of the lead, and thus playing in the tougher afternoon conditions, posted a score under 70 (Ian Poulter).
The numbers are gripping. They point not just to a victory, not just to a clutch performance –but to dominance. In the moments that mattered most, Mickelson rose when others fell. That’s the mark of a champion.
But it was what happened beyond that scorecard that made this moment so special, and so unique to the history of Muirfield’s storied fairways. It was the fact that Mickelson had tried for years to overcome a style of play not his own, links golf, on his way to winning a tournament he wasn’t sure he’d ever win. It was the tears that flowed from his caddy’s (Jim “Bones” Mackay’s) face as soon as the final putt dropped. It was the hug that encapsulated his children and his wife, a family that had encountered an obstacle much greater than a British bunker –recurring cancer.
It was the fact that this round could inspire a golf Hall-of-Famer, a five-time major champion, one of the greatest to ever do it, to say, “That’s one of the greatest rounds of golf I’ve ever played.”
And it was.
Undoubtedly, pundits will still take up newspaper space and airwaves lamenting Tiger’s 21st straight major loss, despite the fact that he’s still a year ahead of the pace Jack Nicklaus set on his way to 18 major championships. Golf writers and critics will still mention that we once again witnessed the inevitable Westwood collapse.
But for once, those storylines are back page news. They belong in page twos, second paragraphs, in game notes and bullet points that provide glitter to a greater piece of art.
The greater piece of art, and news, on this Sunday, is Phil Mickelson. While interest in golf has slipped in recent years with Tiger’s lack of dominance and 18 different champions in 19 major tournaments, Muirfield brought back what it always brings: the rise of true greatness.
Golf needed its fans to see greatness. Golf needed Phil Mickelson.
And in one magical hour, beneath those gray Scottish clouds, he delivered, cementing that July 21, 2013 will represent the day that golf made us feel alive again. When six holes made us feel whole.