Phil Mickelson geared up for Muirfield by winning the Scottish Open. (AP)
It's a 180-mile, 3½-hour drive from the highlands of Inverness, Scotland, down south to the region they call East Lothian, where venerable Muirfield will host the 142nd Open Championship, or the "British Open," this week, but for Phil Mickelson, the journey might as well have been a heavenly ride on a winged chariot.
On Sunday night, he became a champion at the home of golf, and that can't sound much better.
(Come to think of it, Lefty's so loaded, he probably bypassed the stark, remote scenery and long and winding roads and loaded up the G-4 for a quick flight down, but that doesn't fit with my point of stressing Gaelic golf and its poetic imagery.)
Mickelson, see, played the European Tour's Scottish Open at the dramatic Castle Stuart Golf Links way up there in Scotland's nether regions better than any player in the field. He outlasted South Africa's Branden Grace in a playoff in true Mickelsonian style – first blowing a chance to win in regulation by three-putting the 72nd hole; then winning with a birdie on the same 18th hole with a bit of Lefty wizardry, sticking a wedge from a tight and low greenside lie to about two feet.
And just like that, a big-name win in Scotland, and it all felt so good and right – the long hours of upper Northern Hemisphere summer light on the TV screen, golf played against Scottish bodies of water (in this case, the Moray Firth), players tested with blind shots and set against the background of gorse and broom and heather, their golf balls bouncing along classically rumpled fairways.
In other words, fire up for the British Open, starting Thursday at Muirfield.
For this week, American golf fan, put aside your fondness for parkland-style golf, for irrigated fairways painted Technicolor green. Embrace patches of brown turf, as Mother Nature would have them. Enjoy the concept of playing a golf shot after it takes an unplanned, bouncy ride through fairways that don't promise anything. Savor the challenge of the world's best in a pot bunker, their minds spinning on how to best conquer those terraced walls.
I'm not the only one feeling romantic. Heck, even former dirt bikers from Southern California who dress in garish all-orange outfits are immersing themselves in the spirit: Rickie Fowler on Sunday posted an Instagram with the caption, "As the sun sets over the 18th grandstands," with the hashtag #TheOpenChampionship. It's a silhouetted image of those tall grandstands that surround the British Open's final hole, and Fowler showed an artist's eye in choosing it to post. Those grandstands, and how they're built, how they encompass the final green, always leads to an acoustic sensation, thunderous applause and guaranteed goose flesh for the golfer who makes that final 100-yard walk to the 72nd green, Claret Jug imminent on Sunday evening. Fowler showed his respect for the beauty of it all.
And that we're at Muirfield makes it all the better. Run by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – a name to make Fred Flintstone's Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes Lodge green with envy – Muirfield is so honourable, indeed, that its roster of champions is a veritable almanac of the game.
Walter Hagen won at Muirfield. Tom Watson won at Muirfield. Nick Faldo won twice at Muirfield. Lee Trevino won at Muirfield. Gary Player won at Muirfield. Ernie Els won at Muirfield, in 2002, the last time it was held there. Hell, Harry Vardon won at Muirfield. As if that list doesn't knock your argyle golf socks off, consider that Jack Nicklaus won his first British Open at Muirfield in 1966, came back to America, built his own golf course, and called it "Muirfield." Imitation by the Golden Bear is the sincerest form of golf flattery.
Who will join that list? If 2013's pattern is our guide, following Adam Scott's Masters and Justin Rose's U.S. Open, it will be a major-less but highly ranked and well-liked international player. Lee Westwood, anyone? Luke Donald? Brandt Snedeker? But if history is our guide, it will be a huge name, a Hall of Fame name, a Muirfield-worthy name.
Mickelson, at age 43 and now having won in the land of William Wallace, is a different player, a bigger threat at a British Open than he has been in the past. His high-ball flight used to automatically disqualify him, along with what appeared a defeatist attitude. It took his 12th Open Championship start, in 2004 at Troon, before Lefty cracked the top 10. He even finished runner-up to Darren Clarke at Royal St. George's two years ago, and he has the win at Castle Stuart, so it's in him now to perform across the pond. Certainly, his name would slide alongside Player and Els and Faldo and Nicklaus quite nicely.
No, Tiger Woods has not won at Muirfield. He had a pretty good shot to win at Muirfield, teeing off on Saturday, July 20, 2002, in the third round, two shots off the lead and gunning for a Grand Slam, having won the 2002 Masters and U.S. Open already. But a cold and angry and lashing storm moved in off the Firth of Forth just as he was teeing off, and Tiger saw tee shots blown into knee-high rough, left a golf ball in a bunker, skulled some shots over greens, tossed a club in frustration, couldn't reach par-3s in the wind and shot 81 – at that time, his worst-ever score as a professional. The storm, part of the vagaries of summer on the Scottish coast, drowned Tiger's dream in harsh, near Shakespearean fashion.
Back then, Tiger was only 26 years old, a bachelor, and already owned eight majors. He was gracious and patient after his round, talking to reporters after a day when umbrellas were blown inside out and his Grand Slam dream was, too. "We all understand that is just the way the Open Championship is," he said. "It just wasn't meant to be today."
So much has changed in those 11 years for Tiger. Six more major victories, a marriage, two children, public humiliation, a divorce, knee surgeries, four wins in 2013, an elbow injury, a new girlfriend – and Tiger arrives back at Muirfield, as likely to win it as anyone else, as likely to be a dogged victim of inexorable fate as anyone else.
What hasn't changed is the magic of the Open Championship. They started playing this thing before the United States had its Civil War, and while Rolex didn't sponsor big timepieces on tee boxes back then, and while those big yellow grandstands didn't shake with noise back then, some things remain the same: the curve of the Earth, the light of the summer eve, the feel of the wind, the sight of the sea and the ever-loving challenge to golf your ball through it all, to be declared Champion Golfer of the Year.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
70-65-65-65 – 19-under 265, Jordan Spieth, winner (playoff), PGA Tour John Deere Classic, TPC Deere Run, Silvis, Ill.
While you were fading out around the third or fourth playoff hole at the John Deere, Jordan Spieth, 19 years young and with the golf world in his palm, watched his ship come sailing in.
And speaking of transportation, here's hoping young Spieth threw a duffel bag together in time to fly to Muirfield, where he has now qualified to play in his first Open Championship. Heck, kid, don't even bother with the duffel bag. Use some of that John Deere check to buy cashmere sweaters and a fancy toothbrush when you get to Scotland.
Nineteen! And a winner on the PGA Tour. He's the youngest to win on Tour since 1931, and the fourth-youngest winner of all time. Not Rory, not Tiger, not Jack, not Arnie, not Phil, can say they won on Tour at age 19. And this doesn't appear a fluke. Spieth has been hanging around all year, with six top 10s already. He's the kid who played the Byron Nelson as a 16-year-old and finished tie-16th, then bagged a top 25 at Olympic Club's U.S. Open last year as an 18-year-old. Jordan Spieth can play, and more important, isn't afraid to score.
He outlasted the Prince of the Midwest, nine-time Tour winner, Masters champ and Deere defending champ Zach Johnson, who got wet on the fifth playoff hole and made bogey. And Spieth outlasted a Canadian named David Hearn, who missed a 4-foot putt for the win on the fourth playoff hole. Sometimes, you gotta have the breaks, right, kid?
He said as much to David Feherty afterward. Spieth's win will forever be defined by two shots, both of which showed the golf gods were feeling him. First, on the 72nd hole, Spieth one-hopped a bunker shot into the cup for a birdie to get him to 19-under, good enough for the playoff. Not that it wasn't a brilliant shot – it was his fifth birdie in his final six holes – but if it hadn't found the cup on the hop, his Titleist was bound for a watery grave on the back side. So, cool. That worked out.
Next, he blocked his tee shot into the trees on the fifth playoff hole, but found a fortuitous lie and a shot he envisioned – a punched 7-iron through a narrow gap. He told Feherty he simply told himself to trust it, and the result was so beautiful – purely struck, right on target, great distance – that he only needed to two-putt from the fringe for the win. Feherty told him it was one of the best shots he'd ever seen.
Meanwhile, Spieth got a tweet from @The_Open saying: "Congrats. We hope to see you. P.S. Muirfield is looking amazing!" As tweets he's ever received go, I'm thinking that's top five all time.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"That's, by far, the greatest round of golf I've ever played … it all came together today. I can't explain why today, after all these years. Here I am, almost 53 years old, and it all came together for me. It's just neat how it all turns out. This is by far the biggest tournament I've ever won." – An exultant Kenny Perry, to Steve Sands of NBC, greenside after holing out for a final-round 63 at the U.S. Senior Open in Omaha.
The phrase "weekend warrior" originally connoted a part-time soldier, or reservist, but has come to describe a person who attacks a hobby or sport on weekends, to make up for the drudgery of Monday through Friday.
It may be time to slap the nickname on Kenny Perry, except with some stronger language, something along the lines of: "Weekend Butt Kicker" or "Weekend Destroyer."
Perry's homemade golf swing – "it's not pretty", Johnny Miller said at one point on NBC – continues to deliver the goods, time and again. And now Perry has won consecutive Champions Tour majors with weekend rounds nothing short of devastating to the field. His 63 at Omaha Country Club followed a Saturday 64, meaning he went 13-under on the weekend alone. Perry overcame a 10-shot third-round deficit to win the coveted USGA championship, and said the joy goes a long way to overcoming the pain of his 2009 Masters playoff loss to Angel Cabrera, and his PGA Championship playoff loss to Mark Brooks back in 1996.
And get this, it's not the first Champions Tour major where Perry dropped a 63-64 weekend hammer on the field. The chipmunk-cheeked Kentuckian did the same thing at the Senior Players Championship, this time going 63 on Saturday and 64 on Sunday. So, if you're counting – and Perry's doing a lot of counting these days, of U.S. currency – that's four weekend rounds in majors the last month, and two 63s and two 64s and two wins for Perry. That'll work quite nicely for Kenny Perry, weekend partier extraordinaire.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
You're forgiven if you don't know of David Hearn, a 34-year-old Canadian with zero PGA Tour wins and the lowest of profiles. Hearn was pitted against local hero Zach Johnson and teenage wunderkind Jordan Spieth in the three-man, five-hole playoff at the John Deere, and while most everyone was rooting for the storyline of Johnson or Spieth, it was Hearn who had the best chance to win. And then … poof. Gone, just like that.
It was the fourth playoff hole, the 17th hole, and Hearn had four feet for the win, and surely he'd make it and vault his name into the Masters and maybe the British Open and … oh, no. He missed the 4-footer. On to the fifth playoff hole, and on to glory for Spieth.
So even though Spieth's story was remarkable, and the best possible story for the weekend, we can't endorse that kind of pain for the Canadian journeyman. Let's go back out to the 17th green, mark off four paces, place Hearn's ball on the green, remind him to breathe and … give that man a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
If you've got to ask, you'll never know. On to Muirfield, where your Honourable Company is requested.
NBC video of Mickelson's playoff win at Scottish:
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Phil Mickelson wins Scottish Open despite three-putt on No. 18
• 19-year-old Jordan Spieth wins John Deere in playoff
• Tiger Woods says elbow feels fine after Muirfield practice round
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