SANDWICH, England — The top American contenders were just like the intermittent storm clouds that pestered Royal St. George’s on Sunday afternoon. They looked impressive, they made noise, they had intense bursts for a short time, and then they floated harmlessly out to sea and were forgotten.
They came up short, but it was actually a pretty good week for American golf at the Open Championship. Six Yanks finished ninth or better and eight were 12th or better. That lineup included Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Chad Campbell, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler, Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, Steve Stricker and Lucas Glover.
It was definitely an overall improvement for American golf, if not a reason to celebrate.
Mickelson made a stellar charge, rocketing through the front nine in just 30 strokes that could’ve been 28 if not for a couple of lipped-out birdie putts. Then Phil missed a tiddler — that’s British for short putt — on the 11th hole. That stunning bogey sent him spiraling downward on the closing nine.
“That was just a stupid mistake,” Mickelson said later, shaking his head in exasperation. “I lost focus there. It was just a dumb mental error.”
As Darren Clarke pulled away on the ensuing holes, Mickelson was forced to get more aggressive, and that cost him even more bogeys. He finished two under and in second place, a position he’s familiar with in that other Open he’s never won — the U.S. Open, where he’s been runner-up five times.
It’s almost all good news for Johnson, who wound up as the last man standing with a chance to take down Northern Ireland’s Clarke. Johnson birdied the 10th and 12th holes and was two shots back when he crushed a drive down the fairway at the par-5 14th. The hole was playing into the wind, but with Johnson’s power, he had a chance to reach the green in two and make a birdie. All Johnson had to do was avoid hitting it right, where out of bounds hugs the right side of the hole.
He pulled out a 2-iron and hit it right. Out of bounds. Double bogey. And that largely ended all the drama at the Open.
“I probably should have hit 3-wood,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’m two back and the rest of the holes coming in are pretty tough. You don’t get too many opportunities to make birdie, so it was definitely a go situation. But if I had to do it over again, I’d hit a 3-wood. I was trying to hit a little low draw, hit it right at the flag and turn it a little left.”
You can’t fault his strategy; it was the execution that tripped him up. Still, Johnson’s showing was a serious bright spot for the U.S. He has now contended in three of the four majors. Remember the last guy to do that? His name was Rory McIlroy. Playing near the lead in the final round of a major three times isn’t a fluke, it’s a trend. Yes, he’s fallen down, but he keeps getting up.
“Like I say all the time, the more I put myself in this situation, the better,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s showing is especially encouraging because he’s normally a high-ball-hitting bomber, not the type you’d expect to excel at extreme links golf. Yet he did, and he did it despite an ear-nose-throat virus that had him on antibiotics all week.
“It was brutal out there,” Johnson said. “I hung in there all day and just unfortunately made the double on 14, which took all my momentum out. I think I had a great week. I wasn’t feeling that well, I didn’t have my best stuff this week, for sure, but I just fought around and think I did very well.”
Fowler was also a pleasant surprise for the Americans. Even the British journalists and broadcasters were taken with his shoot-from-the-hip play. Several on-air commentators predicted that Fowler would win an Open someday.
Dressed in his usual all-orange outfit (why hasn’t Tropicana signed this guy?), Fowler played a solid but unspectacular final round. He simply couldn’t buy a birdie putt and ended up with 13 straight pars before he finally succumbed to a bogey. He shot a two-over 72 and tied for fifth, his first top-10 finish in a major championship.
“I really haven’t been in contention come Sunday in a major, so this definitely felt nice,” said Fowler, who made four birdies in Saturday’s third round but none in the finale. “I could have gotten some momentum going if they [putts] would’ve gone.”
His good showing may quiet his detractors, who wonder how he became a marquee player without winning anything. The answer is potential, which he showed again this week. “I’m pleased with where my game is right now, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year,” Fowler said.
Campbell and Kim, two players from the hey-remember-when-I-used-to-be-somebody category, tied for fifth? Campbell lost a shootout to Shaun Micheel in the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill, played on three Ryder Cup teams and was last noticed missing a putt to exit from a three-way playoff at the 2009 Masters, which was eventually won by Angel Cabrera. Campbell, who closed with 69 after a nice birdie on the 72nd hole, had to qualify to get into the field and was pleased with his showing.
“I was just excited to come here, not being able to play last year and not qualifying last year,” said Campbell, 37. “In West Texas, we get a lot of wind. I can definitely relate.”
Perhaps the most promising news for Team USA was the play of Kim, 26, who seemed destined for star status a few years ago before a thumb injury derailed his progress. He’s been struggling, with only one top-10 finish this year, a tie for sixth at Torrey Pines. He’s won three times on the PGA Tour, the last coming in Houston in 2010.
He likes links golf. This was his third British Open. He missed the cut at Turnberry in 2009 but tied for seventh at Royal Birkdale in his debut in 2008. He’s a key player the Americans could really use in top form for the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.
“Today was probably the worst I hit it out of the four days, so that was a little disappointing,” said Kim, who shot 70. “Hopefully, I can start playing well. That was all I had this week, and it’s a real positive step for me and the rest of the year.”
Maybe it was a positive step for American golf, too.