Commentary

Phil Mickelson's furious rally falls short

Updated: July 17, 2011, 5:43 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SANDWICH, England -- If you were expecting tears, instead there were smiles. Cursing a missed opportunity? Nope, it's something to build on. Wondering what could have been? Well, maybe … but it sure didn't seem as if Phil Mickelson was all that broken up about what happened Sunday at Royal St. George's.

Waiting for Mickelson afterward and lingering through Darren Clarke's crowning as Champion Golfer of the Year was wife, Amy, who had the ever-present glow and the look that suggested that the Mickelsons would be just fine.

"This is the first time we've been to the British as a family," she said after Phil finished three strokes behind Clarke, having for a time Sunday played the golf of his life in a style that had always tormented him.

"We were going to go to [Turnberry] two years ago and we didn't go because I got sick. We had a great week, Phil enjoyed being with the kids. It's been fun."

Perhaps that is why a 38 on the back nine after an electric 30 on the front was not the disappointment you would think as Mickelson tied for second with Dustin Johnson at the 140th Open Championship.

Mickelson has been vague about how much the cancer Amy and his mother, Mary, have endured over the past two years weighed on him and his game. Few details have been divulged, and Mickelson has always sought to distance that and his own health issues -- an arthritis diagnosis -- from his golf.

In other words, he has strived to not use it as an excuse, although surely that has been a lingering mental hurdle to overcome. Mickelson has won too many tournaments, too much money, for his golf to be such a priority during a time of crisis.

[+] EnlargeMickelson
David Cannon/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson followed up a 30 on the front nine with a 38 on the back but still managed his best British Open finish when Dustin Johnson bogeyed the 72nd hole. The pair tied for second.

So, in truth, it has made it difficult to criticize his somewhat lackluster play, especially since he won the 2010 Masters. Throughout the rest of the year, there was a scenario in every tournament in which Mickelson could have moved to No. 1 for the first time in his career. Never happened.

This year he won the Houston Open the week prior to the Masters, then was never a factor at Augusta National. Last month he played poorly at the U.S. Open, a tournament where he has been runner-up five times.

And the Open Championship has been his worst major, with just one top 10 in 17 previous starts.

Who saw this coming?

Mickelson was dealing with the brutal elements like he grew up on a links course, like he loved playing in the wind, like he welcomed the rain.

Birdies at the second, fourth and sixth holes Sunday put him right in the thick of contention, despite a howling wind and sometimes sideways rain.

"It was incredible," said his longtime caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay. "He didn't miss a shot. We were standing in the fairway on 4 and saying 'Let's just make a 4 here.' And he makes a birdie. After the putt on 6 he said to me, 'This is about as much fun as I've ever had playing golf.' It was so cool."

Then he rolled in an eagle putt on the seventh hole to get to 5 under and tie Clarke, and all of a sudden the idea of a fifth major title at the most unlikely of venues wasn't a joke anymore.

"I was having a lot of fun, some of the most fun I've had," Mickelson said. "I was just hitting the shot I was seeing every time, and the ball was rolling where I was wanting it to. It was really fun."

It would have been a lot more fun for Mickelson had his birdie putt at the eighth not lipped out. Or if a good chance at the ninth had not slid by. By then, Clarke had also eagled the seventh, but Mickelson rolled in another birdie putt at the 10th. He was 6 under through 10 holes, a shot out of the lead, some treacherous weather looming, and he was chasing a player in Clarke who had rarely been in this position.

At that point, Mickelson was two birdies away from shooting the all-time record in a major championship, a 62.

Then it all changed when Mickelson missed a short par putt at the 11th. He ran his birdie putt up to less than 3 feet, and inexplicably missed it, lipping it out on the high side.

"The putt at 11 was just a stupid mistake," Mickelson said. "There was nothing to it. It was just a dumb mental error. I just lost focus there, and it hurts to throw shots away like that when I'm behind."

Mickelson appeared to rush the putt, and the bogey was crushing. Clarke was not making mistakes, not until the end when it no longer mattered.

When Mickelson made another bogey at the 13th hole after hitting his drive in the middle of the fairway, the style and patience that had gotten him to this point vanished.

"When I saw Darren wasn't going to make a mistake and he played some great golf, when he didn't make any mistakes there throughout the round, I had to start trying to make birdies, and that's when I ended up making a couple of bogeys," he said.

Mickelson never did make another birdie after the 10th hole. He added four bogeys to shoot 38 on the back after a front-nine 30 -- his fourth such score in a major championship. His 68 matched the lowest round of the day.

And yet all it got him was a silver plate as the runner-up, his best finish in 18 tries at a tournament that befuddled him for so long.

Mickelson sounded almost disingenuous when before the tournament he talked about throwing out all his past experience at the Open and starting anew -- at age 41. He said he was embracing the links style, hitting shots along the ground, taking what the course gave him.

It didn't seem possible. And yet, despite making just seven birdies through three rounds, Mickelson found himself just five back heading into the final round.

"He had an amazing attitude this week," Amy Mickelson said. "It was very fresh. Very positive … I was really proud of him. He wasn't hard on himself, which is nice. He really looked at the positive of everything. I would just say he had a fresh mental attitude this week. I really think he's going to build on this."

Mickelson was quick to point out his happiness for Clarke, 42, who became the oldest player to capture his first major since Mark O'Meara in 1998. Clarke has now won 14 times on the European Tour and more than 20 worldwide, but success has been fleeting since his wife, Heather, died of cancer in 2006.

Only a month later, Clarke somehow played in the Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland and it is traditional for both teams to be introduced with their spouse or significant other. Clarke, of course, was alone, but the Mickelsons moved beside him, with Amy walking between both men and holding their hands, a gesture which Clarke could not help but reference.

"Phil has been through an awful lot with Amy and what have you, and we have spoken quite a lot," Clarke said. "He has turned into also a very good friend of mine through thick and thin, and he said some very, very kind words to me there after the thing, which is great. And Amy is looking fantastic, as well."

Clarke clearly knows what Mickelson was enduring two years ago when the cancer diagnosis came.

"He was one of the first people who called us," Mickelson said. "He's been through this and could not have been a better person to talk to. We talked for a few hours a couple of times. He's a tremendous person and a very good friend, and I couldn't be happier for him. It was fun to try to make a run at him."

Mickelson did, and it was fun to consider the possibilities. Clarke is a great story, the third player from Northern Ireland in six majors to capture one of golf's biggest tournaments.

But how big would it have been for Mickelson to get No. 5 at the major that he contended at just once before?

It was undoubtedly deflating to see it slip away, but Mickelson didn't appear to be leaving England forlorn, and came as close as he has come to admitting that perhaps the personal issues in his life affected his game.

"I think as a professional golfer you've got to be able to separate what's going on in your personal life on the golf course," Mickelson said. "It was my own fault. I shouldn't have let it affect [me]. But whatever the cause was, I feel like I'm kind of getting back to playing the way I have in the past and I know I can, and I've had a lot of fun doing that."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com