SANDWICH, England – Phil Mickelson made an impressive charge Sunday at the one major championship that’s always been a struggle for him.
Darren Clarke was intent on making sure Lefty – or anyone else – didn’t seal away his first major title at the British Open.
On another windy, wet and wild day at Royal St. George’s, Clarke was two shots in front of Dustin Johnson, three ahead of Mickelson and six holes away from giving little Northern Ireland another victory in one of golf’s signature events.
Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have won the last two U.S. Opens. Now, it’s the 42-year-old Clarke, who came into the week as an afterthought next to his homeland’s new stars, making a bid for major glory.
Beginning the day five strokes behind Clarke, Mickelson surged up the leaderboard with a brilliant start in gusts of more than 30 mph.
Lefty made three birdies in the first six holes, pumping his fist as the ball kept dropping in the cup. Then he rolled in a 25-footer for eagle at the seventh, moving into a share of the lead.
Clarke didn’t falter. Coming along four groups later in the final pairing, the Ulsterman rolled in a 20-foot eagle of his own at No. 7, reclaiming a two-stroke edge at 7 under.
Mickelson went out in 30 and made another birdie at the 10th, then was bitten by a familiar bugaboo: a 2-footer lipped out at the 11th to give him his first bogey. Another bogey at the 13th and a 5-foot birdie miss at the 14th appeared to end his charge.
Dustin Johnson plodded through the front side with a 1-over 36, but two birdies in the next three holes at least gave him a chance to catch his playing partner.
Johnson was playing in the final group at a major for the third time. At last year’s U.S. Open, he squandered a three-shot lead on the final day with an ugly 82. Then, two months later at the PGA Championship, he missed out on a playoff when assessed a debated two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole.
Thomas Bjorn was at 3 under. Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim were five shots back and running out of time.
Mickelson, who has three Masters titles, one PGA Championship and five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, has never been much of a factor on this side of the Atlantic. In 17 previous Open appearances, he managed only one top-10 finish.
He came into the week saying he wanted to forget his past woes and just act like a British Open rookie. That attitude was giving him one of his most impressive performances, but it might not be enough to catch the steady leader.
Clarke kept rolling in clutch putts, getting out of trouble when he needed to and seemed to have the wacky British weather on his side.
Storms rolled in and out, producing drenching showers one moment, bright sunshine the next. It wasn’t usual to hit a tee shot in the rain and finish that same hole needing sunglasses.
Clarke is an old pro at links golf, so these sort of conditions are to his liking.
McIlroy came into the week as the overwhelming favorite, coming off his eight-stroke romp at Congressional. He never got it going on the English seaside and sounded bitter about all the foul weather, closing with a 3-over 73 and a 7-over 287 total.
“I’m not a fan of golf tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather,’ he said. “It’s not my sort of golf. Yeah, I’m disappointed with the way I finished, obviously, but I’ll just have to wait until next year to try and make a run at this tournament.”
Tom Lewis, who began the week as the first amateur to hold the lead at a major in 35 years, finished with a 74 for a 289. He still finished as the low amateur, his goal coming into the week.
“This week has been amazing for me,” the 20-year-old from England said. “It was a shame the last three days. I haven’t played anywhere near as good as I had hoped. But to win the silver medal is a great honor.”
Lewis’ playing partner the first two days, 61-year-old Tom Watson, had another age-defying Open. He closed with an impressive 72 to finish at 286.
“I played pretty well,” Watson said. “A 72 on this golf course is not a bad score. It just wasn’t good enough to get close to the leaders this week.”