Updated: July 24, 2013, 4:00 AM ET

Blown opportunity for Tiger Woods

By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

>The platitudes were few Sunday in the aftermath of the Open Championship as Phil Mickelson celebrated his victory while Tiger Woods was left to explain another major championship opportunity lost.

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.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

Mickelson's Place In History

By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

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."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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