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Lateral Hazard: Phil Mickelson's legacy grows with stunning British Open victory

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

This one was for the ages. Everything about it was unforgettable. The setting (Muirfield's hallowed ground in Scotland, a golf course that deigns to crown only legends); the player (the mercurial and thrilling Phil Mickelson, a beloved 43-year-old Californian inducing goose bumps and emotions); the performance (a final-round 66 when a final-round 66 at Muirfield was a ludicrous ask, four birdies in his final six holes to surge past a leader board of monster names, to pass Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods and Adam Scott and to stamp this Open into the annals as an all-time great).

And by extension, to further stamp Mickelson's already great career that much farther up the ladder of all-time great careers.

You can dust off all kinds of statistics that show Lefty's career arc ascending into the stratosphere, like joining Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods as the only players to win three different majors since 1980. But, first, focus on the very nature of Mickelson's five career major triumphs, a number that sees him leave the likes of Ernie Els and Raymond Floyd behind on four, and sees him join the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson on five.

All five wins are portraits of Lefty-ness; dashing and daring victories seized by the risk-taking Mickelson, never once handed over by a faltering competitor. To wit:

2004 Masters: The first major for Phil may have been the sweetest, at least until Sunday at Muirfield nine years later. Suffocating in a golf world owned by Tiger Woods, Mickelson broke through and gulped down the sweet air, finally. He did it at a venue that caters to his thrill-seeking game, in front of fans who adore his swashbuckling style. In a heated duel with Els, Mickelson came to the 18th tee having birdied four of his last six holes – then made it five of his last seven on 18, punctuated by a mighty effort to leap in the air. He shot a back-nine 31 and made the Big Easy feel the Big Pain, winning by one on his final stroke. A classic barnstorming finish.

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Phil Mickelson couldn't help but celebrate after his birdie putt on the 18th hole at Muirfield. (AP)

2005 PGA Championship: At Baltusrol, in an East Coast summer heat wave drenched by storms that forced a Monday finish, Mickelson came to the last hole tied with Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn – only to flop a shot from deep greenside rough to a kick-in birdie and a one-shot win. Classic Phil, relying on the bold short game, and on the stones it took to execute it.

2006 Masters: With a one-shot lead over Fred Couples and Chad Campbell to start the final round, and with Tiger Woods three shots back to start the day and motivated to give his dying father one last major, Mickelson never blinked. He played 17 bogey-free holes, came to the 18th tee four-under for his round, and carded a final-round 69 to beat back the pack and finish two shots clear of Chad Campbell. He didn't stall with the lead, he surged.

2010 Masters: Down a shot to Lee Westwood to start the final round, Mickelson absolutely blistered the back nine at Augusta, rattling the cathedral of pines with a roar-inducing back-nine 32. Phil's charge included his legendary "6-iron from the Pine Needles" on 13 for birdie, a round of 67 and a third green jacket, zooming past a dejected Westwood. That he did it when his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, were publicly battling breast cancer added to the Lefty lore.

2013 Open Championship: And now, this. At Muirfield, where the names are Nicklaus and Watson; Player and Faldo. At the British Open, where for the first decade of his career, Mickelson waged war with the requests the Open demanded of his golf game, and landed only one top-10 finish in his first 18 tries, at Troon in 2004, one shot out of an Ernie Els-Todd Hamilton playoff. His Open Championship game lay dormant again until 2011, when his front-nine 30 at Royal St. George's saw him actually briefly take the lead, until Darren Clarke surged past for his memorable win. Though Lefty missed the cut at Lytham last year, his Scottish Open win at Castle Stuart last week, combined with the '04 Troon and '11 Sandwich Opens lent some credence to the idea that something might be clicking. As usual, Mickelson, an open book, provided as much to the press, saying last week he felt Troon and Muirfield were his best chances to kiss a Claret Jug; and that he used to "hate" links golf, but has learned to "love" it. Still, being five back to Westwood and with eight players in front of him Sunday morning, including Scott, Woods, Angel Cabrera, Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson, looked too much to climb.

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Mickelson shared a warm moment with his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, after the final round. (AP)

And then, the long birdie putt on 13. And then, the sizable birdie putt on 14. And then, the aching pain of a well-struck tee shot on 16 holding the green, then … trickling … slowly … off, into a scruffy Scottish lie. But! A steely up-and-down to save par, and then to the par-5 17th; a roasted 3-wood off the tee, center cut; and then the purest of 3-woods from the fairway, followed by an adrenaline-laced, "Come on, baby!" shout as the ball took flight, the surest sign that you knew Phil knew this was all happening, and happening right now. A two-putt birdie on 17 ensued when so many other times Tragic Phil would have three-putted, and then the confident strut to 18 and the feeling that it was all taken care of, that the golf energy that runs this universe, and the meshing of what Paul Azinger in the ESPN booth identified as the synergy of Phil's engineering and artistic sides, would guide his gorgeous tee shot, his even better approach and his perfect, absolutely perfect read and stroke for the final-hole birdie, his 66th stroke. It was no wonder his career-long caddie Jim (Bones) Mackay couldn't stop the tears on the 18th green. He was overwhelmed by how beautiful it all was, and it was beautiful.

The long hug with his whole family behind the green, the sight of Phil Mickelson holding the shiny, silver Claret Jug after being proclaimed "Champion Golfer of the Year" – considering his history with this championship, and his evolution to learn this championship, and to never give up on this championship even though it rebuked him time and again – was a sweet sight.

Which is all a way of saying, when Phil Mickelson wins a major, he does so in singular style. There is no waiting for others to stumble, to hand it over while he waits in the clubhouse. There is no backdoor special. There is Phil, and there is Phil going and getting it and never letting go. That's the stuff of all-time greats.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

72-68-70-75 – 1-over 285, Lee Westwood, tie-3rd, 142nd Open Championship, Muirfield GC, Gullane, Scotland.

In Britain, they call the guy who comes close and huffs and puffs and never blows the house down a "Nearly Man." For Lee Westwood, a likable, witty, intelligent 40-year-old Englishman who once fell from the top 100 in the Official World Golf Rankings about a decade ago, only to climb all the way back to No. 1 in 2010, and now spends his time knocking on major championship doors that never seem to get answered, you can't blame if he's nearly had enough.

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Lee Westwood found himself in too much trouble in the final round. (AP)

This one was all set up. Westwood, so long bedeviled by putting miscues at majors, began rolling them in on Saturday like a young Tiger Woods. The Muirfield crowds ate it up. In a world where Justin Rose won the U.S. Open and Andy Murray won Wimbledon, Westwood's Sunday triumph would add to the glory of a United Kingdom summer.

Except, it didn't. Looking like the guy who always contends, but can't find the Sunday key, Westwood made bogey on 3 to start the final round shaky, under-clubbed on the par-3 7th hole and made bogey, found a plugged lie and made bogey on 8 and didn't make a birdie the rest of the way. He shot 75 and finished his 61st major championship start without a win again.

He said after: "I just didn't hit good shots when it mattered," and the mind went back to all his near misses of the last several years. One way to look at Westwood's ledger is with awe: In his last 16 major starts, he has 10 top 10s. Further, he has seven top-three finishes. In the Olympics, that's seven medals or "podiums," as they now say. In golf, that's hard cheese.

And yet, through it all, Westwood tries to still be Westwood. Asked if he felt pressure Saturday night, he cracked, "Well, I'm off to eat dinner and I don't feel much pressure, as I've always been good with a knife and fork."

And after Sunday, he went philosophical, saying: "I don't really get disappointed with golf anymore … it just doesn't wind me up, or get to me anymore."

That's an admirable stance. Sad part is, as Sunday night fell on East Lothian near the Firth of Forth, you have to wonder how true it all is, deep down.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"This is not the Tiger Woods we're used to seeing, but maybe it is the Tiger Woods we're getting used to seeing … he's lost that childlike enthusiasm for the game, like it's a job now … he had a defeated look on his face, something I'm not used to seeing." – Paul Azinger, ESPN, with various takes on Tiger Woods.

Where to start with Tiger Woods, other than in the last five years, at major championships, up is down, down is up and Tiger Woods' legend continues to fade. Tiger is no longer the intimidator, the closer, the cold-blooded killer – or, perhaps most important – the putter we once knew.

In some ways, it's an obvious read, a dime-store psychologist's dream. Determined to permanently erase the shame of his fall from grace in 2009, obsessed with shutting up all the haters and doubters, intending mightily to reclaim his status as the name everyone fears, he is feeling performance anxiety, so to speak.

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Tiger Woods' final round again left him holding his head after another major. (AP)

He is older now, and every player in the history of the game struggles with putting as one gets older. He has won again, yes – but at golf courses where he feels high degrees of comfort (Bay Hill, Torrey Pines, Doral). At majors, he instead turns into the golf equivalent of a baseball player trying to end a slump: gripping the bat tighter, getting into bad hitting counts, swinging at bad pitches.

His second shot at 17 on Saturday, a lofted fairway wood instead of a laser-ed fairway wood, dropped him into a cross bunker and cost him a chance at a spot in the final pairing. Confused by the speed of suddenly watered greens on Sunday, he said, his putting betrayed him. While Tiger was top five in the field in fairways hit and greens in regulation, his 26 one-putts ranked tie-15th, and trailed Lefty's 31 one-putts. Oh, Phil finished five shots clear of Tiger, by the way.

The weekend scoring woes remain the glaring, neon-orange problem for Tiger. Each day at Muirfield, his score climbed, ending with a 72-74 weekend. At Merion's U.S. Open, his weekend was 76-74. Last year, at Olympic's U.S. Open, he entered Saturday tied for the lead, then shot 75-73. To keep on the baseball analogy, it's like seeing Mariano Rivera come in and blow ninth inning lead after ninth inning lead.

The bright side, if there is one? As Tiger said, somewhat defensively Sunday evening, he keeps putting himself in the conversation. "It's not like I've lost my card," he said. (Wait, does Tiger even think like that?) His last six major starts, Tiger has three top-six finishes. And he's 37 years old, and if Mickelson is winning majors at age 43 (oldest since Ben Crenshaw in 1995, by the way), meaning Tiger has a full 20-30 majors (health permitting) in the coming years to make hay and restore the glory.

But here's a stat for you: In the last 10 years, Tiger Woods has won six majors, and Phil Mickelson has won five. That's not a decade of dominance.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

I'm not super fired up to hand out any mulligans, since Mickelson winning at Muirfield was such a magnificent storyline. His name fit the "Muirfield of Dreams" list of legendary winners, and was executed in such lovely, historic style, I'm not sure any of the competitors should get a mully to make things interesting.

If anything could have made it spicier, it would have been a Tiger-Phil duel, perhaps. And Tiger's woes began with that uncharacteristically poor 3-wood on Saturday on the 17th hole, making bogey on the par-5 after his mishit into the cross bunker. That led to a two-shot deficit, an assignment in the penultimate pairing, not the final pairing, and it led to everyone trotting out the most used, and still the most bewildering, statistic in sports: Tiger Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes.

So, in the interest of perhaps leading to a Tiger-Phil fantasy smackdown on the Muirfield leader board, let's go back out to 17 fairway on Saturday, remind Tiger that he never, ever, ever used to make glaring mental mistakes when in the hunt late on Saturdays, remind him that par-5s are his very lifeblood, remind him that he once was Tiger Woods and … give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

I don't know about you, but I'd follow Lefty wherever he goes. Remember, this is the guy who celebrated a Masters win by wearing his green jacket to a Krispy Kreme drive-thru. I want to party with that kind of guy.

He won't play in the Canadian Open this week, although the field is strong with Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson and Ernie Els and Matt Kuchar all entered. And it'll be good, I'm sure.

But you'd do just as well to cue up Phil Mickelson's Sunday at Muirfield on your DVR, then sit back and enjoy.

More British Open coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
How Lefty turned U.S. Open heartbreak into British Open joy
Tiger Woods' legend continues to fade
Phil Mickelson thrills en route to British Open win
Tiger Woods, Steve Williams reconcile at British Open
Phil Mickelson has all-time great round to win British Open
Fellow players show Lefty love for British Open win
Final round photos from British Open

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