Sometimes language fails us.
To say “Phil Mickelson lost the British Open” seems wrong, even though it is technically correct. He didn’t win. He went into the final round at Royal Troon trailing leader Henrik Stenson by a shot, fired a dazzling 65, and still lost by three.
“I thought we played pretty good golf,” Mickelson told NBC’s Steve Sands.
Uh, you think? Stenson made 10 birdies and shot 63. Had he rolled in his short birdie putt at the par-3 17th he would’ve shot the first 62 in major championship history. He drained so many meters worth of putts the metric system fails to do it justice.
And yet Mickelson nearly matched him. He made four birdies and an eagle, and no bogeys. After six holes, Phil said, he realized there were only two people who could win. He kept the pressure on Stenson until the end, his crafty par save at the 17th keeping him just two shots behind a major-less 40-year-old, who also was trying to give Sweden its first male major winner. Mickelson maintained the suspense for as long as humanly possible. Stenson never cracked.
“I knew he wasn’t going to back down at any point, and in a way that makes it easier for myself,” Stenson said. “I knew I had to keep on pushing, keep on giving myself birdie chances and he wasn’t going to give it to me, so I had to pull away.”
Stenson’s 20-under total matched Jason Day (2015 PGA Championship) for lowest 72-hole total at a major in relation to par. Mickelson surely deserves some of the credit. With his 11th runner-up finish in the majors, he trails only Jack Nicklaus (19) in that category.
Someone asked about the 1977 Open at Turnberry, when Tom Watson shot 65-65 to edge Nicklaus’s 65-66 in the Duel in the Sun. “I was thinking about that,” Mickelson said. “I know that I wanted to be more of Tom in that case than Jack, but unfortunately — I understand how it feels [to play the Nicklaus role]. It’s bittersweet.”
What more can be said of Mickelson? He has entertained us for a quarter century and continues to do so despite playing with psoriatic arthritis and, over the past couple of years, through uncomfortable queries from federal investigators. He has every reason to lose interest at 46, but refuses to do so. He loves the game. He loves the fight.
In addition to everything else, Sunday’s thrilling duel marked Mickelson’s sixth top-five finish this season. He’d shot under par every round at Troon. He’d come within an eyelash of shooting 62 in the first round. He’s still seeking his first W since the 2013 Open.
“It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” he said. “I think that’s probably why it’s disappointing in that I don’t have a point where I can look back and say, I should have done that or had I only done this. I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major. Usually that’s good enough to do it, and I got beat.”
Out of the 144 previous Opens, Mickelson’s 17-under total at Troon was lower than the winning scores of 140 of them. Only champion golfers Nick Faldo (18 under in 1990) and Tiger Woods (19 under in 2000, 18 under in 2006) went lower. Rory McIlroy also reached 17 under to win in 2014.
So there’s that.
“I’m very excited with the work that I’ve put in with how Andrew Getson has helped me with my golf swing,” he said of his low-key, Arizona-based swing coach. “The way I was able to hit fairways with ease coming down the stretch and hit my iron shots right on line, draws and fades and so forth, and basically that comes from getting my swing back on plane.”
The PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, in the leafy ‘burbs of New Jersey, where Mickelson won the season’s final major in 2005, starts July 28. Phil, who’s now a lock to make his 11th straight Ryder Cup team, will be a favorite.
Don’t bet against him.