Muirfield mastery seals Lefty's place

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HOYLAKE, England -- The time spent as Champion Golfer of the Year was not lost on Phil Mickelson. The symbol of his victory, the Claret Jug, was returned Monday at Royal Liverpool, site of this week's Open Championship, perhaps a little less shiny as Lefty took every opportunity to relish the victory and let others share in it.

Despite a disappointing season to date, Mickelson, 44, is enjoying the ride as he heads into his Open defense, having arrived in Europe two weeks ago for a family vacation in Greece, followed by the Scottish Open and his newfound joy for links golf.

But if you really want to see Mickelson's face light up, all you need to do is mention the seemingly innocuous practice round he had last week at Trump International Scotland, where a long-awaited match pitting Lefty and his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, took place against Padraig Harrington and his caddie, Ronan Flood.

Mickelson approached this like he sniffed another major title -- and couldn't wait to gloat about a 2-and-1 victory afterward. In great detail, he explained how he was a bit worried when he saw Flood knock a 295-yard drive down the middle of the fairway on the first hole. How the match would involve aggregate strokes on each hole. And that this has been in the works for some time, finally coming to fruition in Scotland.

"Big match; we had been talking about it for years," Mickelson said. "Ronan has this beautiful golf swing. It was a big day. And it will be discussed every time we see each other for years.

"We tied the first hole and then at the second Bones hits a big lofted drive, and I'm thinking we're in trouble here. But then after Bones started getting it together we won the next four holes and from there it was over."

Mickelson loves having those bragging rights, and Harrington was mildly bemused when he learned that Lefty couldn't wait to tell everyone.

"It was only nine holes," Harrington said. "Phil couldn't even make it for the second nine."

That is how Mickelson rolls, taking great glee in giving the needle to his tour colleagues, loving the test however inconsequential it might seem to an outsider.

Among the greatest challenges of his career, however, is figuring out how to play the style of golf that brought him an unlikely Open Championship -- and in stunning, career-defining fashion.

Before winning at Muirfield last year with a final-round 66, Mickelson's résumé in the game's oldest tournament was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber, a Hall of Famer who has won a majority of his 42 PGA Tour titles in the Tiger Woods era.

While Mickelson has won three Masters, a PGA Championship and finished runner-up six times -- painfully -- at the U.S. Open, he was mostly an afterthought at the Open Championship. He finished third at Royal Troon in 2004 -- a year in which he contended in all four majors and won the Masters. And he tied for second in 2011 at Royal St. George's, making a crushing bogey on the back nine when it seemed he might overtake Darren Clarke.

Those were his only top-10s. He had missed four cuts in his 19 appearances, his next-best finish a tie for 11th at St. Andrews in 2000. The Open was clearly the major nobody expected him to win.

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