Every now and then, nice guys finish first.
That was the beautiful part of Phil Mickelson’s British Open victory Sunday at Muirfield, home to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
How nice a guy is Mickelson? When he sank his final putt — a slow, breaking 10-footer for a final, crowning birdie — his caddie lost all sense of emotional decorum.
Jim “Bones” Mackay thrust the flagstick into the hole, punched a fist through the air, and buried his teary face on Mickelson’s shoulder during a lengthy embrace.
“You work for a guy for 21 years,” Mackay told Karen Crouse of the New York Times, “it’s pretty cool when you see him playing the best round of golf you’ve ever seen him play in the last round of the British Open.”
That Mickelson would play this round of golf came as a stunning surprise to anyone who watched the final round of the U.S. Open just a month ago. Mickelson, after leading for three rounds, suffered his most heartbreaking defeat. He finished second for a record sixth time.
“It’s a huge difference in emotions, as you can imagine,” Mickelson said at his official champion’s press conference. “And being so down after the U.S. Open, to come back and use it as motivation, to use it as a springboard, knowing that I’m playing well and to push me a little bit extra to work harder, to come out on top, in a matter of a month, to turn it around, it really feels amazing.”
Mickelson’s final round 66, one of the great final rounds in major golf history, featured four birdies over the final six holes. He began his charge on the 13th, the exact point in the round where his U.S. Open began to unravel.
“I hit a really good 5-iron in there, and it was a putt that was going to make the rest of the round go one way or the other,” Mickelson said. “I just thought if I made it, it would give me some momentum, get me to even par for the championship, a score I thought had a good chance of being enough. And that putt went in, and it just gave me a nice momentum boost.”
So did his putt on 14, an even longer birdie that pushed him to one-under and tied for the lead.
Those two crucial putts were made by a guy who couldn’t buy a putt to win the U.S. Open. At Merion, he recounted eight final round putts that he hit well enough to make. Only one went in, and that was to save par.
But a par putt was his biggest one Sunday. It followed a bit of cruel fortune that should have unglued Mickelson.
He hit a beautiful shot onto the par-3 16th green, only to watch, horrified, as the ball slowly trickled, than ran, well-off the green into a swale twenty meters away.
You could hear Mickelson tell Mackay, “Wow. That’s as good as I’ve got.”
At this precise moment, as co-leaders Lee Westwood and Adam Scott played Advance to the Rear, Mickelson had just taken sole possession of the lead for the first time all day.
He chipped seven feet past the hole, but made the putt to retain the lead.
Brimming with confidence, he then reached the par-5 17th green in two. “I hit two of the best 3-woods I’ve ever hit,” he recalled. “As I was walking up to the green, that was when I realized that this is very much my championship, in my control.”
After that two-putt birdie came the triumphant stroll up the 18th fairway, the final putt, and the hug with Mackay. Then came the best part, the family embrace. Unlike last month, when Mickelson flew home to San Diego immediately before the U.S. Open to hear daughter Amanda’s eighth grade graduation speech, his family was all on hand.
“It feels amazing to have this championship,” he exclaimed. “And then to make it even more special, to have Amy, Amanda, Sophia, and Evan here.”
Then came a special shout-out to his caddie. “To share this with Bones. He was getting choked up in the locker room. This is really special for both of us. It’s a special moment to be part of the great history of this championship.
“It’s very difficult here to pull clubs, because you have three different options on every shot, based on the trajectory and whether you’re working it into the wind or with the wind. And to pull shots or to pull clubs when you have to not only pull the right club, but you have to describe the right shot, and to be descriptive, and for us to be on the same page, it’s really difficult to do.
“We were on the same page all week. Bones was exceptional.”
Mickelson gets it right, he really does. Sharing the joy with family and friends. Now, that was the best part of winning the Open.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times.