Commentary

Where does Lefty go from here?

Updated: August 6, 2013, 12:00 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The Claret Jug has made its way to Rochester, the celebration continuing. And as much as Phil Mickelson would like to get back to the business of concentrating on golf, he might be excused if he takes a few moments here and there to revel in a glorious victory at the Open Championship.

Just over two weeks have passed, but the sound of cheers continues to ring in his ears. Mickelson was not able to escape it -- nor did he really want to -- last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and it has followed him from Scotland back to his home in California and now to western New York.

Even his longtime caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, has been besieged with good wishes, struggling to return texts and getting slaps of congratulations wherever he goes.

[+] Enlarge Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Matt DunhamAfter his U.S. Open collapse, Phil Mickelson responded with an awe-inspiring victory at Muirfield to claim his first Open Championship title and fifth career major.

One example occurred a few days after the Open on a San Diego beach, where Mackay was spending a few days with his family.

"A lifeguard comes by in the jeep, with zinc all over his nose, hanging out the window. 'Great win!' It's been stuff like that all the time, and it's been great to share it with everybody," Mackay said.

"All the folks who root for him are just so over the moon. Everyone has gotten such a kick out of it. People seem to really identify with this win for him. More than the Masters in '04 [Mickelson's first major title]. Everybody. People in TV, people in the media, people behind the ropes. They're just so darn happy for him."

No doubt, it was a feel-good Phil victory, one wrought with high drama and emotion. Five strokes back when the final round began at Muirfield, Mickelson was still somewhat of an afterthought through nine holes and certainly so after a bogey at No. 10.

But he made birdies at the 13th and 14th holes, a clutch par save at the 16th and then finished with birdies at the 17th and 18th for a 3-stroke victory over Henrik Stenson.

It was a stunning, remarkable finish, one that occurred nearly an hour before the leaders would come to Muirfield's home hole. They still had work to do, and Mickelson knew it was all but finished.

"When we got done, and being my overly cautious self, I said, 'Hey, let's not lose sight of the fact that you could be in a playoff in 45 minutes,'" Mackay said. "And in a very respectful way, he was like, 'Are you kidding me? If somebody gets to 3 under, that's all I've got.' It was a cool moment. It was just such a great round."

Mickelson said, "Just excited every day that I've got the Claret Jug and I get to look at it every day. It's a great feeling."

The victory has resonated for several reasons.

The way it was accomplished was a big factor. Mickelson's 66 ought to go down in history as one of the great closing rounds in a major, in the same conversation with Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont in 1973 to win the U.S. Open and Jack Nicklaus' 65 at Augusta National in 1986 to win the Masters.

Mickelson's score wasn't as low, but in relation to the field, it was extraordinary. His tally was more than 7 strokes lower than the scoring average that day.

"I remember thinking that the only chance he had was if he had an exceptional ballstriking day," Mackay said. "In all the time I've worked for him, I don't think he warmed up for a round like that. With plenty of time to go before we teed off he kind of walks back to the bag and there's really no point in hitting any more, because he's got it. I know him well enough, he just smiled and we stood around. That was nice."

There was also Mickelson's history with the Open. While he had won three Masters and the PGA -- and contended in several others -- and finished runner-up six times at the U.S. Open, Mickelson struggled on the British links courses. He had but two top-10 finishes before Muirfield. "It had given him so much trouble for a while," Mackay said.

And little did we know, but Mickelson was also suffering from quite the emotional hangover from his second-place finish a few weeks earlier at the U.S. Open. Mickelson had been in contention from Day 1 and had led with eight holes to play, only to make two crucial bogeys over the closing holes, in both cases hitting poor wedge shots.

Mickelson acknowledged last week that he had awoken on that Sunday having dreamed that he had won the U.S. Open. To lose it in the fashion he did made it difficult for him to get out of bed for days.

"Usually he gets over that stuff pretty quickly," said Mackay, who started caddying for Mickelson when Lefty turned pro in 1992. "Apparently he didn't on this particular occasion. That stung. He was in a real good place. Loved the course, loved the way he was playing at Merion. It seemed like things might fall into place for him."

Losing in that manner -- again -- turned Mickelson into a sympathetic figure, which made his Open Championship title all the more meaningful. Yes, he had won the Scottish Open the Sunday prior, but nobody quite saw this major coming.

"I was so thrilled for the guy," said 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, a frequent practice round partner of Mickelson's. "I just love to see him win because he puts the effort in that I feel is needed to win tournaments. What Phil does is, he is prepared to win every major."

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty ImagesAfter his gut-wrenching -- and record sixth runner-up -- finish in the U.S. Open at Merion, many thought Phil Mickelson would take a long time to recover and get his game back.

"It was amazing," said 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell. "Phenomenal display. Great display of humility from him and Bones. Huge amount of respect for them, just the way they handled themselves. The way he said he wasn't sure if he was ever going to win one of those. He acknowledged the fact that he had to adapt his game. It was awesome. Great performance.

"We all kind of laugh and giggle about what Phil has in the bag next. Two drivers; 3-woods and no drivers. He definitely goes with the scientific approach to the game of golf. But the guy is a magician with a wedge in his hand. He's a phenomenal player."

To that end, what is to keep Mickelson from adding more majors? He's already in the Hall of Fame, and if Muirfield was the end of the major ride, it was a terrific way to finish.

But Mickelson is far from finished. He talks with optimism not only about this week, but the future.

"Right now I'm playing as well as I ever have and want to make sure I stay focused because I think there's an opportunity to add to this year and make this year every bit as special as it can be," he said. "And I want to make sure I give myself every chance to play well because I've been playing some of my best golf the last few months. And I'm excited about these upcoming events."

Hard to believe, but Mickelson has never won the PGA Tour's money title or been player of the year. He's never been ranked No. 1 in the world. The last might be tough to attain given the big lead Tiger Woods has at the moment over the second-ranked Mickelson, but the other titles are not out of reach.

Still, there's a bigger picture for Mickelson, whose Open victory trumps all those accomplishments.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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