Sandwich, England On an exposed corner of Royal St. George’s golf course, close by the English Channel, Phil Mickelson was in a place he’d never been Sunday afternoon.
He had a share of the final-round lead in the Open Championship, tied with Darren Clarke, as he leaned into his familiar crouch over a 10-foot birdie putt that would give him a 29 on the front side and a one-stroke lead in the major that has most mystified him. Through eight holes, Mickelson had been brilliant, the way the great ones sometimes are on a championship Sunday.
He looked like the old Mickelson, using his clubs like wands, crafting his own magic.
The Claret Jug, as elusive as recapturing a dream, was right there.
Watching Mickelson settle over the putt, a man in the gallery said, “It’s great to finally see Phil at his best.”
Then a sudden cold rain, whipped sideways by the relentless wind, began to fall.
And Mickelson began to melt.
He missed the birdie putt at the ninth and, an instant later, a roar erupted from behind a nearby dune, signaling Clarke had taken control of the championship with an eagle at the short, par-5 seventh.
Mickelson would birdie the 10th, a counterpunch that kept him close, but then he missed a short one at the 11th, no more than 30 inches, and he, like the other American challengers, was in retreat.
It ended with Mickelson shouting “Fore, right!” as his approach shot to the final green dive-bombed into the enormous greenside grandstand at the 18th. Mickelson briefly bowed his head but came up smiling again. All week he had tried to kill his Open hex with kindness and optimism and it very nearly worked.
Ultimately, Clarke played the best in winning a championship that doubled as a lifetime achievement award for the man who carried Northern Ireland golf before Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.
He caught a couple of good breaks Sunday, two shots bouncing over snake-pit bunkers that could have changed the momentum, but Clarke also made a huge 12-foot par putt on the first hole that seemed to cement his nerves.
As Clarke played the final hole, Mickelson, who tied for second with his practice-round buddy Dustin Johnson, waited greenside to congratulate him.
When news broke about Mickelson’s wife, Amy, being diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, Clarke was among the first people to call. He’d lost his wife, Heather, to the disease in 2006 and he talked Mickelson through his early emotions.
It was a gracious move by Mickelson, who chose not to wallow in his own disappointment.
He talked afterward about finding his old self recently, putting an element of joy back into his game that had gone missing while he coped with his wife and mother’s cancer battles and his own diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis last year.
Nothing could be better than Mickelson being Mickelson again.
“I haven’t been myself the last couple of years,” he said, cracking the door on his psyche. “I feel I’m getting back to playing the way I can.”
Sunday was filled with classic Mickelson, both the brilliant Phil and the frustrating Phil.
He wound up three behind Clarke and tied for second with Johnson, his best finish in 19 Open starts.
Northern Ireland has won three majors — by three different Ulstermen—since Mickelson captured the 2010 Masters. It was Mickelson who pushed the fight Sunday, a welcome sight regardless of how it ended.
Standing beside Clarke as the new champion waited to receive the Claret Jug early Sunday evening, Mickelson had an arm on his friend’s shoulder.
And a smile on his face.