The only thing more exciting than watching Tiger Woods win a tournament is watching Phil Mickelson blow one. Sunday’s final round of the Bridgestone Invitational was vintage Lefty, which is to say, it was so bad it was good. Emerging from a dogfight with a handful of world-class players, Mickelson stepped to the 15th tee at Firestone Country Club in Akron leading by a stroke. There was much at stake; Mickelson had a chance to win his first World Golf Championship and generate some much-needed momentum heading into this week’s PGA Championship, the season’s last chance at major-championship glory for a player who hasn’t sniffed a major in the two-plus years since his meltdown in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. In a larger sense, Mickelson was fighting to remain relevant.
Since Woods went on the disabled list in June, this season has lacked definition. Someone — anyone — needs to emerge as the game’s keynote player, and the rest of this season is Mickelson’s best-ever chance to burnish a surprisingly incomplete resume: He has never won a money title, the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average or player of the year. The Bridgestone was the beginning of a frenetic eight-week stretch, but instead of positioning himself as the man to beat, Mickelson reminded us that he so often beats himself.
Over those final four holes at Firestone he limped home with three excruciating bogeys and a par that was just as dispiriting, as it came on the eminently birdieable par-5 16th hole. Bobby Jones, a wordsmith as well as a champion, once conjured a felicitous phrase to describe the tournament golfer: “dogged victim of inexorable fate.” With every errant shot, Mickelson’s doom seemed inevitable, and his inability to right himself was riveting.
Phil’s folly opened the door for his longtime antagonist, Vijay Singh, who provided his own grim must-see TV as he battled a case of the yips throughout the final round. Singh’s victory — and his sanity — was imperiled until his 3 1/2-footer on the 72nd hole wiggled into the cup, leaving him a stroke ahead of Stuart Appleby and Lee Westwood.
Afterward Mickelson, the man who put “I am such an idiot” into the golf lexicon, couldn’t stop raving about his round. “I played great,” he said, his face frozen into that familiar smile. “I felt as if I should have shot 63 or 64. I had countless birdie opportunities from six to 15 feet, and then I make three bogeys on the last four holes to turn a 64 into 70. So I feel as if I’m playing well, I simply need to get that final piece of scoring down.” And Amy Winehouse simply needs to get that final piece of sobriety down.
There has long been a debate as to who is the second-best player of the Woods epoch, which began in August 1996. Since then Singh and Mickelson have each won three majors, while Vijay has 29 victories (of 33 total) and Phil has 23 (of 34). This Bridgestone may have to be part of the tiebreaker.