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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Mickelson masters wind for improbable British Open victory

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

GULLANE, Scotland — With daylight subtly nudging your consciousness at 4 a.m., you awaken on Open Sunday with thoughts about the wind.

Doesn’t matter that Scotland has been experiencing a heat wave, any seasoned Open observer could not imagine the final round being played without the wind chaffing the nerves of the competitors.

Master the Open winds and the hardpan greens, and you become a worthy champion.

The grand old tournament was not lacking when it came to stirring breezes Saturday afternoon. That is always part of the fun — when the winds have movement like a Nolan Ryan fastball, unpredictable and consequential. Par is unduly respected when Open layouts are at their windy best. Those traditional Open conditions were certainly not conducive to a 5-under 66, which Phil Mickelson posted to win the championship that most critics figured to be the least likely for him to win.

It was one of his most consistent championships rounds ever — going from two over par at the start to a three-under finish.

Four birdies in the last six holes — that is the stuff of Open champions. While nobody ever counted him out on Sunday as the round moved through the first nine holes, his propensity to lapse into mistakes in majors and the perception that he was not the best links-style player suggested that he was not that much of a threat.

But his steady game, making but one bogey, had him clutching the famous Claret Jug at the end of the day.

The only player under par, Mickelson charged home in par-busting style when even-par for 72 holes would have gotten him into a playoff. More than a few were betting on Tiger Woods to break his drought of winless majors the last five years. That, perhaps, had something to do with Mickelson’s success at Muirfield. He likes standing up to Tiger, who began the day 1-under, two strokes better than Mickelson.

Therein lies the tale of the latent Tiger. Many players are standing up to him. They believe that they can match him shot for shot when the pressure is on.

For years, there was the view that Mickelson did not have the game for links golf. He bombed the ball high in the wind and watched it float waywardly into the rough, which made scoring difficult, even with his sometimes spectacular short game. Phil has had his moments — like at Royal St. Georges two years ago when he finished second behind Darren Clarke.

He had prepared diligently for his unforgettable moment on Sunday. He has worked on his short game in recent years and has confided in friends that he is putting better than ever. He came early to prepare for the Scottish Open last week, which he won, giving him confidence for the Open championship. He opened on Thursday with a 69, which further heightened his confidence. Then a 3-over 74 was followed by a 1-over 72.

His position was certainly worthy, although the focus was on others on the leaderboard. He was under the radar through nine holes.

Golf is not so much about how you start, but rather how you finish. The Open has seldom had a more moving finish, contrasted to last year at Royal Lytham when Adam Scott bogeyed the last three holes to let Ernie Els claim the Open title.

After Mickelson’s birdie at No. 18 to ensure victory, there were celebrations about the final green with his wife, Amy, and his children embracing him and extending familial congratulations. Mickelson now has won three of the majors and only needs a victory in the U.S. Open to complete a career grand slam. Having lost at Merion in June when it appeared the title was there for the taking, you have to think that victory at Muirfield has to be one of his most fulfilling major championships.

For years, Mickelson prepared for the Masters at the University of Georgia golf course in Athens. A highlight of the day for him was breakfast at the Waffle House. A man who cavorts with his family around the world and enjoys a meal at the Waffle House can relate to anybody.

And a Claret Jug for the trophy case makes it even easier.