Of course, Phil being Phil, he had to do it the hard way.
After making a stout putt for a par on the 226-yard 17th at
Castle Stuart GL, Lefty arrived on the 72nd tee feeling all
was right in his world. And it was, at least until he stood over
the 18-foot putt for birdie from the fringe that would have
taken him to 19 under for the week and given him a two-shot
victory over South African Branden Grace.
That putt, however, was only the first of three and finished
five feet or so past the cup. Playoff.
“Nobody likes a movie that’s predictable,” quipped the new
champion after making birdie on that same hole, courtesy of
a brilliant 45-yard, semi-blind pitch nipped off the barest of
lies that finished inches from the cup. “You always want to
have a little bit of suspense.
“I don’t know what happened on the last hole [of regula-
tion]. I just lost a little bit of focus and ran that first putt by.
I thought I hit a decent putt, but I misjudged it. But to come
out and refocus and get ready for the playoff and make a 4 on
a very difficult hole, I feel good.”
That feeling was well earned. All week Mickelson displayed
every aspect of his trademark deftness on the beautifully
brown links in weather that ranged from still and perfect on
Day 1 to breezy and tough on Day 4. During the second round,
in fact, he hit a shot that was the talk of the range for the rest
of the day. Left and below the raised third green and no more
than 15 yards from a cup cut maybe four paces from the edge
of the putting surface, Mickelson hit one of his patented flop
shots off a bare lie to within three feet. It was breathtaking
stuff, even if the perpetrator was moved to call it merely “a
good shot that probably wasn’t as hard as it looked.”
Still, at least as far as the Californian was concerned,
Castle Stuart represented something close to the ideal
preparation for the British Open at Muirfield.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to get ready for a major
than playing the week before, playing well the week before
and getting into contention,” added Mickelson. “And coming
out on top just gives me more confidence.”
Two for the money: Established star Mickelson (above left, right) and rising star Grace squared off in an unlikely playoff.
In that respect, too, the sometimes-maligned Castle Stuart
course on the southern shore of the Moray Firth passed every
test. Labeled “too easy” and “one-dimensional” by former U.S.
Open champion Graeme McDowell—comments for which he
subsequently apologized—the Gil Hanse design provided a
classic “fast and firm” examination paper. While the scoring was
generally low—on Thursday 117 of the 156-strong field broke
par—the last round in no more than testing conditions produced
only five rounds under 70, including a 69 by Mickelson.
None of those low scores, it must be said, was shot by
22-year-old J.B. Hansen. But his was surely the performance
of the day, a one-under-par 71 containing eight birdies, a
quadruple-bogey 9 on the second hole and, fatally for his suddenly winning chances, three bogeys over the closing four holes.
“I just kept hitting the ball in the right places on the greens
and hoped to hole the putts—and I did it,” said the previously
unknown Dane, neatly summing up the perfect way to play
this endlessly picturesque and strategic test.
Grace also was philosophical in defeat, reasoning correctly
that a player of Mickelson’s class was unlikely to “mess up”
twice on the same hole within half an hour. Still, golf by the
seaside has never been the exact science that so much else in
the modern game seems to be evolving into; anything can happen. And when Phil Mickelson is involved, it usually does. n