Blown opportunity for Tiger Woods
Woods did offer up that Mickelson's 3-under-par total at Muirfield -- the only player to complete the championship in red numbers -- was a "hell of a score" but there was nothing else in the way of congratulations.
For those who believe there remains a long-running feud between the longtime adversaries, there is more fodder. Or you might take the more pragmatic approach, recognize a long, hard day had just been completed without bringing home the prize, and perhaps recognize that Woods had little time to absorb all that occurred.
Now after a few days, Woods should be applauding Mickelson and even realizing deep down that Lefty's victory was a good thing, perhaps even did him a favor. If Woods wasn't going to win, he might as well have been beaten by one of the all-time great closing rounds in major history and have it produced by one of the game's more popular players.
While the heat will never subside around Woods when it comes to major championships, this one should be easier to take given the circumstances and feeds into Woods' argument that there is plenty of time to win more of the big ones.
As it turned out, Woods needed to shoot 2-under-par 69 on Sunday to match Mickelson's 72-hole total of 281, 3 under par. That was clearly an achievable goal, and one that Woods will likely lament. He made that task difficult with the way he played the first nine, never making a birdie until the ninth hole while making two deflating bogeys by three putting from long range.
But in the end, that score of 69 was not so easily achieved. Not by anyone who was in the battle for the title. Of the last 11 groups -- 22 players -- only Mickelson shot in the 60s. And he did so by four strokes! The next best was Henrik Stenson, whose 70 earned him a second-place tie. Ian Poulter shot 67, but played 12 groups in front of the last twosome of Lee Westwood and Hunter Mahan.
Poulter played a great round, but he began the day eight strokes back. His chances were very slim. And once he got near the lead, he tailed off, unable to muster another birdie or two on the closing holes.
Muirfield's finishing holes were treacherous, the conditions not conducive to low scoring. That's what makes Mickelson's score so special. It wasn't Johnny Miller's closing 63 in 1973 at Oakmont or Jack Nicklaus' 65 to win in 1986 at Augusta National, but it beat the scoring average for the day by 7.21 strokes. That is extraordinary.
To that end, Woods' 74 was right about average, which isn't good enough to win majors. Only Mahan's 75 among the contenders was higher. Woods hasn't broken 70 in a weekend round at the majors this year or last, which leads to the conjecture that it is more mental than physical when it comes to closing the deal.
Since winning the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods has played in 17 major championships, with eight top-six finishes, including two this year. For his detractors, that is never going to be good enough, but for Woods it provides evidence that he has put himself there with a chance nearly half the time.
Perhaps by his own lofty standards, that is ordinary, but it does not suggest he is playing terrible, either. Woods, of course, will never admit that there is anything mental about this pursuit. He talked about his difficulty in figuring out the greens by noting again and again that he likes the way he is playing.
Woods finished fifth in the tournament in driving accuracy, hitting 75 percent of the fairways. He was also tied for fifth in greens in regulation, stats that suggest his ball striking is plenty good. He ranked eighth in birdies with 13 (Mickelson tied for first with 16).
But he tied for 29th in putting with more than 30 putts per round (Mickelson was seventh), needing 33 on Sunday. A lot goes into putting, however, and Woods simply didn't hit it close enough to putt well.
Don't expect Woods to lament his lack of majors, at least not publicly. He can take plenty of positives out of his own play, and perhaps a few from Phil's. It was a phenomenal final round, and it gave him two major championships since turning 40. Woods has always said he sees no reason why he can't be competitive well into his 40s, and the past three Open Champions (Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson) only further that argument.
Up next -- following next week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- is the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y. In 2003, Woods tied for ninth there, still his worst 72-hole finish in a major as a pro. He was in the midst of a two-year victory drought in majors and would start working with Hank Haney the following season.
Oak Hill played very much like a U.S. Open that year, and it appears Woods is going to have to hit more than the two drivers he used at Muirfield. And for once, he might actually go into a major championship with a bit less attention -- something for which he can thank Mickelson.
Mickelson's Place In History
By winning at Muirfield, Phil Mickelson joined J.H. Taylor, James Braid, Byron Nelson, Peter Thomson and Seve Ballesteros as players with five major championships. He also has three legs of the career Grand Slam, missing only the U.S. Open, where he has finished runner-up a record six times.
Mickelson also has 42 PGA Tour victories, three behind Walter Hagen at No. 9 on the all-time list.
The arguments will continue as to where Mickelson ranks in the game's pecking order. But it is hard to argue with what he did on Sunday.
Butch Harmon, Mickelson's coach since 2007, has seen his share of great play over the years but said he believes Mickelson's 66 at Memorial deserves its spot among the best.
"This is the fourth different player I have coached to win this championship [along with Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and Stewart Cink]," Harmon said. "In 1993 when Greg Norman won and shot 64, I said it was the best round I had ever seen played under the conditions. Phil rivals it. Given the golf course, how hard it was playing and everything that was on the line. To go out and shoot 5-under to win is pretty special."
1. Phil Mickelson. A final-round 66 that bested the top contenders by 4 strokes will go down as one of the game's great rounds.
2. Henrik Stenson. He has had his share of low moments since winning the Players Championship, but made a strong run at becoming the first Swedish man to win a major championship.
3. Hideki Matsuyama. Recently turned pro, Matsuyama of Japan stayed on the leaderboard at Muirfield. He now has made the cut in all four majors he has played, having won twice this year on the Japan Tour.
1. Lee Westwood. At various times over the weekend, he had a three-shot lead at the Open. But he could not close, which will lead to the inevitable questions about whether he'll ever win a major.
2. Tiger Woods. His scores got progressively worse. Though that worked to get him a major before -- Bethpage, 2002 -- it was not the formula at Muirfield, where Woods posted his eighth top-six finish in the past 17 majors without a victory.
3. Rory McIlroy. He didn't even come close to making the cut, and now has dropped from the top spot in the world beginning the year to No. 3 behind Woods and Mickelson.
There's not much time to wind down from the Open Championship and get ready for the next major championship. The PGA Championship, as has been the case for the past two years, begins two weeks from Thursday -- or just 18 days after the Open concluded. It seems too soon and hardly gives fans and players time to build back up to the year's final major.
In fact, there is no time at all. A good number of players are competing in this week's RBC Canadian Open, and then it's the final WGC event of the year, the Bridgestone Invitational preceding the PGA. The following week, believe it or not, is the final regular-season event on the PGA Tour schedule, followed by the four FedEx Cup playoff events over five weeks. Following a one-week break, the Presidents Cup is played, with the 2013-14 season beginning the following week at the Frys.com Open.
Like a year ago at Royal Lytham, Adam Scott had four straight bogeys after holding the lead at this Open. This time, however, it stung less as it occurred in the middle of the back nine and he ended up losing by four to Phil Mickelson. Still, Scott's name is on major leaderboards now a good bit. Woody Austin's victory at the Sanderson Farms Classic was his first in six years and gives him a two-year exemption through 2015. He turns 50 in January. Austin became the eighth oldest winner in PGA Tour history. Billy Andrade, who tied for fifth at the Sanderson Farms tournament, made his first cut on the PGA Tour since 2009. Phil Mickelson tied Darren Clark's record by winning the Open Championship for the first time in his 20th start. The 66 was his lowest final round in a major. Mickelson joins six other players who are one major short of a career Grand Slam: Byron Nelson, Sam Sneed, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd. Attendance at Muirfield for the week was 142,000, off the projections the R&A had set of 160,000 and less than attended in 2002 during mostly poor weather. This time, the weather was glorious. The Senior Open Championship begins Thursday at Royal Birkdale, site of Padraig Harrington's Open title in 2008. Tom Watson won the last of his five Opens at Birkdale in 1983. Colin Montgomerie makes his first appearance in the tournament.
"You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it. And after losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south, where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back. But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career. And I didn't want it to stop me from potential victories this year, and some potential great play. And I'm glad I didn't, because I worked a little bit harder. And in a matter of a month I'm able to change entirely the way I feel." -- Phil Mickelson, who won the Open Championship a month after his sixth runner-up finish at the U.S. Open.