GULLANE, Scotland — Phil Mickelson and the British Open used to be two cool things that didn't mix so well, the coffee and orange juice of golf. Mickelson hit it too high, took too many risks, and seemed reluctant to club down in order to avoid the rough and keep his ball out of the wind. He had to remake himself.
He did. Showing a hard-won maturity and clutch shot-making that will go down as some of the most memorable of his career, Mickelson made four birdies over his last six holes to shoot 66 and win the 142nd British Open. His 3-under-par 281 was three clear of Henrik Stenson (70) and four better than a surging Ian Poulter (67), Masters champ Adam Scott (72) and hard-luck Lee Westwood (75).
"I needed to bring it," Mickelson said. "I needed to show up and play some of my best golf, and I did. I played some of the best golf of my career."
Upon making his final birdie, a roughly 12-foot, right-to-left putt on 18, an elated and relieved Mickelson hugged his emotional caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, before embracing his wife, Amy, and their three children.
Mickelson started the day five shots behind Westwood, but made two birdies on the front nine to close the gap and shot 32 on the back for the win. His victory came in his 20th British Open start, and marked his fifth major title after having won the Masters three times and the PGA Championship once. Mickelson's win at cool, misty Muirfield puts him three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam and comes a month after he finished runner-up at the U.S. Open for a sixth time.
Westwood was out of sorts early in his quest for his first major, shooting a 2-over 38 on the front nine and continuing to leak strokes on the back, but Scott looked more confident, no doubt emboldened by his Masters win in April. He, Stenson, Zach Johnson (72, 2 over, T6), Hunter Mahan (75, 3 over, T9) and yes, Tiger Woods (74, 2 over, T6) were within striking distance late into the afternoon.
Then Mickelson left them all in the dust so quickly Scott said he began to wonder if the electronic boards were malfunctioning. Stenson said he realized on the 17th tee he'd completely missed Mickelson's charge and was now three back.
"That was a bit sneaky of him," the droll Swede said, eliciting laughter.
Woods started the day just two off the lead, but never looked comfortable on Sunday and leaves town without the trophy for the 19th straight time in a major.
"I'm right there and I hit a ton of good shots," Woods said, "and the only thing I would look back on is I just never got the speed [on the greens figured out] after the first day, because it got progressively slower."
Scott bogeyed his final four holes to lose the Open last year but appeared to be infused with a new self-belief. He birdied the eighth, ninth and 11th holes to get to 2 under and into the lead, but then bogeyed four straight holes, just like last year.
Stenson got to 1 under par through 11 but bogeyed 12 and 13 before finding one last birdie on the par-5 17th hole. Johnson missed a short birdie putt on the ninth hole, and while he went on to birdie the 11th to get to even par, he stalled on the remaining holes, at one point falling over backward as another putt slid by.
Mickelson (69-74-72-66) was the only man to finish under par and becomes the first American major winner since Webb Simpson at the 2012 U.S. Open.
All of Britain had been hoping for a big day out of Westwood, but he began hacking around in the tall grass on the par-4 third, which he bogeyed. He got that stroke back with a birdie at the par-5 fifth hole, but faltered again with bogeys on the seventh and eighth holes. As a volunteer posted his bogey on eight, a lady marshal looked at the board and spoke for many. "S—," she said.
Ian Poulter began the day eight shots behind and was even through eight holes when he went on a run reminiscent of his epic performance at last fall's Ryder Cup. He made eagle at the par-5 ninth hole and three consecutive birdies to get to even par, just a shot off the lead. Alas, he could summon no more magic.
Mickelson joins a distinguished roster of champions here that also includes Ernie Els ('02), Nick Faldo ('92 and '87), Tom Watson ('80), Lee Trevino ('72), Jack Nicklaus ('66) and Gary Player ('59), among others. But how did he do it?
First, he putted well. On 15, facing the type of ticklish par putt we've seen him miss too many times to count, he made the five-footer, his ball just catching the right edge of the cup and tumbling in. He faced a tough, right-to-left seven-footer to salvage par on 16 and he made that one, too, this time right in the middle. He hit two of the best 3-woods of his career to reach the green in two on the par-5 17th hole, setting up a two-putt birdie that would put him so firmly in control of the tournament he had to stop and compose himself before lining up his eagle try.
Just as importantly, Mickelson learned how to manage links golf, to play the bounces and accept the bad ones, trusting in good breaks to eventually balance the ledger. His final birdie on 18 was set up by just such a helpful kick onto the green.
"It wasn't like I was setting out thinking I need to make birdies, or I was trying to force birdies," Mickelson said. "I was just trying to hit good shots."
When he had an uphill eagle putt at the ninth, he didn't charge it in a vain bid for glory but instead eased the putt up the hill and watched his ball stop about a foot short of the hole for a tap-in birdie — veteran move. Although the 10th hole played 469 yards into the breeze, on a cool day, Mickelson hit iron off the tee.
That Mickelson made his only bogey on the hole mattered little, in the end. He had made his putts, yes, but he had also made full use of his guile, lessons learned from his third-place finish at the '04 Open, and his runner-up at the 2011 Open. He was Phil in full, and caddie Mackay fought back tears on the 18th green.
"It took me a while to figure it out," Mickelson said, one hand on the claret jug as he spoke to the press. "It's been the last eight or nine years I've started to play it more effectively, but even then it's so different than what I grew up playing. I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship."
He'll wonder no more. No one will. At one point Sunday night a reporter asked about the Mickelson name, if there was any Scottish in him. Mickelson said he had no idea but pinched his thumb and forefinger together and added in a silly Scottish accent, "Maybe a wee bit." The room broke up laughing because the final step was complete. Mickelson had assimilated, and he had the trophy to prove it.