GULLANE, Scotland – On a hard and historic course that has routinely separated the great golfers from the good, greatness had to come from behind Sunday.
Phil Mickelson started the final round of the British Open five shots behind the leader, Lee Westwood. After nine holes, Mickelson was three shots behind Westwood, the barrel-chested Englishman with the mirrored sunglasses and so much to prove.
But Mickelson, at 43, has become more than one of the elite players of his generation. He is a world-class links golfer, too.
Born and raised in the target-golf mecca of Southern California, where loft and length and backspin rule, Mickelson has gradually acquired the skills and self-control required to become an honorary Scotsman with a club in hand.
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“Hate-love,” he said last week of his relationship with links golf. “I used to hate it, and now I love it.”
On Sunday, Muirfield — a classic course that plays hard to get — loved Mickelson back.
As the many other contenders faded or failed to ignite, including Mickelson’s longtime rival Tiger Woods, Mickelson slowly gathered great momentum. A bogey on 10 looked as if might stop his train, but he finished with birdies on four of the final six holes for a round of 5-under-par 66 that gave him a 3-under total of 281 and a three-stroke victory over runner-up Henrik Stenson (70) of Sweden.
It was one of the finest final rounds in British Open history, which was also equal to the lowest round shot all week on hard-running Muirfield: a lovely stretch of seaside property made considerably less inviting by deep rough, penal bunkers and a circular layout where the winds shift constantly.
“I just could not be more proud to be your champion,” Mickelson said at the awards ceremony, the Claret Jug trophy in hand. “I never knew in my career if I’d be equipped, if I would have the shots, if I would have the opportunity to win a tournament here. And to do it, to play some of the best golf, probably the best round of my career, and break through and capture this Claret Jug is probably the most fulfilling moment of my career.”
It was the fifth major championship for Mickelson, who won the Masters in 2004, 2006 and 2010 and the PGA Championship in 2005.
He is the second left-hander to win the British Open, joining Bob Charles, who won in 1963. Mickelson is the oldest man to win the event in 46 years — Roberto de Vicenzo was 44 in 1967 — but the third consecutive champion over 40 at a tournament where experience clearly counts.
Darren Clarke was 42 in 2011 and Ernie Els was 42 last year. Mickelson has won three of the four major tournaments. The only major title he lacks is the U.S. Open, where he has the dubious privilege of having finished second a record six times.
Mickelson was second again last month at Merion Golf Club, but instead of letting that latest and perhaps greatest U.S. Open disappointment send him into a downward spiral, he got away from it all with his family at the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mont.
That was clearly the right way to heal in a hurry, and by the time Mickelson arrived in Scotland, he was back on target: winning the first links tournament of his career at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in Inverness.
He won two links tournaments in an eight-day span.
“Well, certainly the range of emotions I feel are as far apart as possible in the last month,” Mickelson said. “But you have to be resilient in this game. You have to accept losses and use it as motivation as opposed to letting it defeat you. You’ve got to use it as motivation to work harder and come back strong, and these last couple of weeks, these last couple of months, I’ve played some of the best golf of my career.”
Even the range of emotions at Muirfield was vast. On Thursday, after an opening 69, Mickelson was critical of the tournament pin positions. On Friday, he backed off those statements but shot a 3-over 74 after a disastrous visit to the 16th green, where Mickelson, one of the game’s finest putters, required four putts from inside 30 feet to finish off a double bogey.
But Muirfield took a toll on many players this year, and Mickelson, as it turned out, was the only one to finish under par. He earned $1,442,826 for the victory.
Westwood, 40, seeking to win his first major, struggled to find rhythm or fairways for most of the round, slumping to a 75 and finishing in a three-way tie for third at 1 over with Masters champion Adam Scott (72) and Ian Poulter (67).
Westwood has finished second or third or in a tie for those spots at eight majors.
“I’m a philosophical person,” he said after his latest disappointment. “It just doesn’t wind me up or get to me anymore.”
Ryan Moore (79) of Puyallup started the round in a tie for fifth place and ended up in a group tied for 32nd at 9 over that also included Seattle native Fred Couples (71).
Top-ranked Woods (74) failed in his bid for a 15th major championship; his last major title was in 2008. Jack Nicklaus won a record 18 majors in his career.
Once an intimidating closer, Woods has gone shaky on major weekends. After starting the round at 1 under, two shots off the lead, Woods bogeyed three of the first six holes — missing a 5-foot putt for par on the first — and finished in a tie for sixth place.
Woods couldn’t get the right pace on the greens, which he said were progressively slower.
“I really hit so many good shots and really had control of my ball this week,” he said. “As I said, it was just trying to get the speed, and I just didn’t get it.”