• Open Championship, Round Four

Mickelson masters Muirfield to romp to first Open

Alex Dimond July 21, 2013
Phil Mickelson birdied the last to seal his victory © Getty Images

He long called it his greatest challenge, his toughest task. On Sunday, a breathtaking final round of 66 saw Phil Mickelson win the Open Championship, in the process further elevating his standing as one of the sport's all-time greats.

Only the US Open - in which he has six runner-up finishes, the most recent of them coming last month at Merion - now separates the left-hander from the career grand slam. Pursuit of his home championship will continue for a few years yet but, for now, this memorable triumph on Muirfield's hallowed turf means he resides in the illustrious company of fellow five-time major winners Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson.

2013 Open Championship final leaderboard

Phil Mickelson was victorious © Getty Images
  • -3        Phil Mickelson
  • E          Henrik Stenson
  • +1      Ian Poulter, Adam Scott, Lee Westwood
  • +2      Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama

Eight days ago, preparing for his latest tilt at the Claret Jug, Mickelson had never won a tournament on British soil - now he has claimed two. Becoming the first player ever to win the Scottish Open and Open Championship in back-to-back weeks, the three-time Masters champion came home in just 32 strokes on the East Lothian coast to blow away the rest of the field.

That included perennial nearly-man Lee Westwood, who started the day with a two-shot advantage, and current Masters champion Adam Scott, who moved into the ascendancy around the start of the back nine but crumbled to the close.

Mickelson also dashed the hopes of Ian Poulter, who thought his one-over total, submitted thanks to a 67 completed hours before the third round leaders finished, would be good enough for at least a play-off berth.

In the end the Englishman was four shots shy of extra holes, such was the acceleration Mickelson showed over the closing stages.

"This is a day I will remember for the rest of my life," Mickelson, who was the only man under par at three-under, said. "I never knew if I could develop the game and the shots to play links golf effectively.

"To play arguably the best round of my career - the round of my life - to win, it feels amazing."

The final leaderboard perhaps fails to accurately illustrate one of the tightest, least predictable conclusions of recent Open history.

Two front nine birdies - at the two par-fives, the fifth and ninth - got Mickelson back to even par at the turn, but he nevertheless remained three shots behind Westwood at that point, after the leader had recovered from a dropped shot at the third to retain his early advantage.

The Englishman was not without company, however, as he was initially joined by Henrik Stenson after the Swede birdied the first and third. Stenson would go on to bogey the eighth, 12th and 13th to fall out of realistic contention, although a birdie at the 17th would ultimately elevate him back to level-par for the tournament, good enough to finish second on his own.

Out on the course, Westwood had greater ambitions - although he was temporarily derailed by successive bogeys at the seventh and eighth after poor shots off the tee. That enabled Scott to find himself in control at an Open once again.

Twelve months ago at Royal Lytham the Australian saw his dreams drown in a wave of late bogeys, but in Gullane four birdies in five holes to the 11th saw him move out ahead on his own. The Masters champions has clearly not completely slayed his demons, however, as four successive bogeys between the 13th and 16 (mainly the result of a few woolly swings and an ice-cold putter) came just as Mickelson was lighting the blue touchpaper.

The result was the quick demise of Scott's ambitions.

Mickelson's three victories at Augusta National have all been built on back nine charges on Sunday, and he essentially transplanted that form to Muirfield to add the Claret Jug to his collection. A bogey at the tenth and regulation pars at the 11th and 12th gave little indication of what was to come, especially as the 43-year-old entered arguably the toughest part of the course.

Instead, he made it look easy.

At the par-three 13th, he fired in his approach to ten feet and duly rolled in the putt. At the 14th, he perhaps began to believe in his chances after draining a long-range effort for a second birdie. He lipped out for a third successive red number at the next, before making a remarkable up-and-down at the 16th (after his approach shot had landed on the putting surface but somehow managed to roll back 50 feet off the front) to keep his momentum.

Walking off that treacherous green, Mickelson was tied at the top with Westwood. Then he made his move - becoming the only one of the frontrunners to find the green at the 575-yard 17th, an especially impressive achievement considering the par-five was playing into the teeth of a strong breeze.

After two lusty blows with his modified three-wood the eagle putt would not quite drop, but the tap-in birdie would give him his first lead of the championship.

Ian Poulter came close © Getty Images

Two-under overall on the 18th tee, a par-four would have posted a prodigiously difficult target for any of the chasing pack, who seemed to be finding bogeys far easier to acquire than birdies. Mickelson went one better than that, skirting with a bunker on the left-side of the green after bisecting the fairway from the tee, seeing his approach hop that grave danger before coming to rest nine-feet behind the pin.

The resulting putt was hit with the lightest of touches, but it obediently took the right-to-left break and dropped in the centre of the cup - sparking emotional celebrations between Mickelson and his long-time caddie, Jim 'Bones' Mackay.

"I just made some great putts coming in and it feels amazing," Mickelson added. "[On the 18th tee] I felt like two-under par was more than enough.

"It was so difficult down the stretch, I was doing everything I could to make par [at the last]. That putt I hit barely got to the hole … but it went right in."

Lee Westwood's major jinx continues © PA Photos

Despite Mickelson's confidence, others still had a chance. Westwood remained in the hunt after successive pars at 10, 11 and 12 but a bogey at the 13th after a nervy tee-shot left him needing to make up ground. Forced to be aggressive, a further bogey at the 16th ended his aspirations.

The 40-year-old eventually finished one-over, with a final round score of 75.

"I didn't play that badly today, my round just came unstuck a bit at seven, eight and nine," Westwood reflected. "Phil must have played really well. In the conditions, that is a really good round of golf."

Tiger Woods started with three bogeys in six holes to drop off the pace, but seemed to sense a half-chance of that elusive 15th major after birdies at the 12th and, after a sumptuous approach that rolled to within inches, at the 14th.

A bogey at the 15th, after a horrible three-putt from the front edge, ended the world No. 1's remaining chances, as he finished in a tie for sixth alongside Zach Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.

They were all one shot worse off than Poulter, who eagled the ninth and followed it up with three successive birdies to whip up a storm among the watching galleries.

The magical putting touch the Englishman showed at last year's Ryder Cup was not quite in evidence, however, as missed chances at the 13th, 16th and 17th ultimately prevented him from applying more pressure to the eventual champion.

"I got a little buzz around the ninth, rolled that in and it really kick-started my round," Poulter, who remained convinced he was on course for a play-off until Mickelson found the green in two at the 17th, noted. "Three birdies after that put me in a lovely position.

"I had a flight booked at 8 o'clock. I was a bit annoyed they would not move it forward, but now I'm quite glad."

At least one Englishman walked away with something to show for his efforts - youngster Matthew Fitzpatrick taking the silver medal for low amateur, after finishing ten-over following a commendable final round 72.

That saw Fitzpatrick share the dais - or, to be more accurate, be allowed to stand somewhere on the periphery - at the presentation ceremony with Mickelson, who was greeted with vociferous applause by the galleries as he paraded the Claret Jug.

It was a tournament he was never sure he would be able to win. Now he knows.

© AP
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk