Muirfield mastery seals Lefty's place


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.

"A long time ago, I had this friend from Ireland who said it would take me awhile to win the British Open," Mickelson said last week during the pro-am at the Scottish Open. "He said you'll win, but it's going to take time. And that kind of put me off a little. I was like, 'Really?' I didn't see that at all.

"And yet I struggled. I didn't have a bad attitude about it, but it frustrated me."

Figuring out how to play links golf has befuddled many players over the years. It is not for everyone. But if you are going to win the Open, you have to adapt. All of the courses used in the rotation are seaside links.

Unless you have warm, sunny weather without wind -- about as rare here as ice and cold beer -- controlling shots in the wind, learning to hit short of greens, hitting pitch-and-runs along the ground instead of flop shots and laughing when you get a bad bounce becomes paramount.

"He didn't have a bad attitude. He just didn't have the ball flight," Mackay said. "Geez, the guy grew up in California. It's like trying to putt on grainy greens. He had never seen them."

Mickelson always has played the power game. A long hitter, he hit the ball high, and could spin approach shots to get them close to the hole. That is, mostly, how golf works in America. Forced carries over hazards to difficult pins all but requires it. But flying the ball to the hole on a links course almost never works.

"The turnaround came in December of 2003, just before the 2004 season and it was when I started working with (short-game guru) Dave Pelz on hitting wedge shots without spin, and controlling the distances and the other yardages," Mickelson said. "That work we did carried over into my short irons, middle irons and ultimately my long game.

"The key to playing links golf from tee to green is being able to hit the ball not just low, but low without spin, and that's what I was struggling with and why I was always fighting it. I would swing hard. I would put more spin on it and the wind would have a greater effect."

Mickelson nearly won the Open in 2004, missing a playoff with winner Todd Hamilton and Ernie Els by a stroke. But he didn't contend again until 2011, that time more a story of a missed opportunity.

So hardly anyone was thinking of him at Muirfield when he entered the final round 5 strokes back. Lee Westwood was leading. Woods trailed by two, with Adam Scott another stroke back. Henrik Stenson and Zach Johnson were four behind. Mickelson was tied for ninth.

Scott took the lead from Westwood after the 11th hole. Meanwhile, Mickelson had played the first nine in 2-under 34. A bogey at the 10th seemingly knocked him out of it, but he rebounded with birdies at the 13th and 14th holes to tie Scott for the lead.

Mickelson added birdies at the 17th and 18th holes, and while about an hour of play remained, nobody could catch him. In fact, he blew them away, posting a score that was 4 strokes better than anyone who started the day in the top 10. He beat Woods, who shot 74, by eight.

It was simply one of the best closing rounds in major championship history.

"He won it in pretty iconic fashion," Mackay said. "I think he took a lot from that. In a sense, I think that really puts him at ease in terms of his legacy. He proved himself at that tournament to be one of the best players to ever play the game."

Mickelson has clearly soaked it all in. Always good with fans and pro-am partners, he turned on the charm during last week's Scottish Open pro-am, grouped with the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, PGA of America president Ted Bishop and Stewart Spence, an Aberdeen businessman, hotel owner and golf lover.

Spence, a 60-something golfer and member at Royal Aberdeen, was an impressive figure on the links with a healthy-sized crowd following the country's political leader and golf's reigning Open champion.

On one hole late in the round, Spence was 150 feet off the green -- and elected to putt, rolling the ball over the humpy terrain (a classic links golf play) and seeing it come to rest a few feet from the hole. Mickelson reacted as if the man just won the Claret Jug himself.

"He's just what I always imagined, just really nice," Spence said. "Just an exceptionally nice person who puts everyone at ease. He's been terrific."

Mickelson's win at Castle Stuart last year was validation for him that the changes he made to play the links game had taken hold. He went to Muirfield with a quiet confidence, at ease. He played a late Monday practice round and then -- as he is so wont to do -- set up a money match for the Tuesday practice round.

He and Rickie Fowler took on Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, with the Mickelson-Fowler tandem walking away with the cash.

Fowler, for his part, jokingly believes he deserves some credit for Mickelson's win. "I think that inspired him," Fowler said.

"It was fun to watch [him win] being around him, being that we had played Tuesday together and spent some time there. To see him go through his game plan, see it play out and him play well down the stretch and to birdie the last. It was definitely a special week for him."

Players have been known to do some crazy things with the Claret Jug -- it is actually a replica; the original is in the R&A clubhouse in St. Andrews -- and Mickelson was no different.

His favorite was to take it to a golf course where he was playing and leave it in the pro shop while he was on the course so those who came through could see it, touch it, even drink from it.

"It's been really interesting to see the emotional response of people and how much they appreciate it and appreciate what a great trophy that is," he said.

But no more than Mickelson, who has loved every bit of the experience.

"I'm not taking anything for granted," he said. "It took me 20 frickin' years to get it!"