Thanks to the fine folks of Aberdeen Asset Management and Visit Scotland, WUP is in Scotland this week covering the Scottish Open and playing some of the great courses in the area. Keep up with my Instagram, YouTube and Twitter for (more real-time) behind-the-scenes coverage of the event and my adventures.
Phil Mickelson, who is finally no longer winless in the United Kingdom, never fails to thrill. It’s almost maddening watching him because you really just don’t know what he might pull out of his bag of tricks.
This time, Phil survived a shaky finish on the 18th in regulation that forced a sudden-death playoff against Branden Grace to capture the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
Walking down the 18th fairway after Mickelson had launched his 3-wood to the left side of the fairway — which put him in perfect position for his second shot on the par-5 closing hole at Castle Stuart — it felt like a sure thing that the 43-year-old American would secure his maiden victory on a proper links course, and more notable on a links course.
The momentum was in Phil’s favor, as was the crowd, including Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, who was watching from inside the ropes. In fact, he was practically jumping out of his trousers with excitement. On the previous hole, the par-3, 226-yard 17th, Phil missed his tee shot way left and well short of the green. With his trusty 64-degree wedge in hand, he knocked a beautiful shot to about seven feet.
Meanwhile, 54-hole leader Henrik Stenson, who fell apart coming down the stretch, had a long putt across the green. He misjudged the speed and blew it a good 15 feet past the hole and stopping on the fringe.
Then, the First Minister, whom I happened to be standing next to, turned to me and said, “It’s quick,” with a smile.
Next, Mickelson stepped up to his par putt to maintain a one-shot lead going into the 72nd hole and pumped his first when it disappeared in the cup. The First Minister exclaimed, “Yes!”, with his own fist-pump.
Only needing a par to clinch the win, Phil, who was just getting over his U.S. Open heartbreak with his sixth runner-up finish, didn’t get overly aggressive and laid up with an iron on his second shot. He had just a little wedge in and hit it about 15-feet just on the back fringe. Easy two-putt, right? Apparently not.
Mickelson, who said afterward he simply lost his focus for a moment, ran his first putt several feet past the hole and missed the comeback to drop to 17-under and nearly letting glory slip through his fingers.
When he walked off the green, he was visibly disappointed and shook his head in disgust.
Now I’d say, “Can you believe Phil just did that??” But thing is, I can. It was just Phil being Phil. He has the tendency to make things more interesting or harder on himself than needed sometimes, but that’s also what makes him so much fun to wathc.
“I don’t know what happened on 18,” he said later.
Phil signed his scorecard and hugged his wife, Amy, and their three children, to regroup.
“I was just getting a little luck from them and refocusing, after making a mistake like that, just refocusing and coming out and trying to make a birdie,” said Mickelson.
Phil had a chance to re-play 18, and this time, he wasn’t going to let the victory slip away from him. Or even give himself the chance to sniff a three-putt.
Mickelson and Grace both found the fairway off the tee on 18. Grace’s drive was further back of Mickelson, so he hit his second first and found the wispy rough on the right. Grace had hit a good third shot onto the green, but he still had about 20 feet to the hole for birdie. And it didn’t appear to be an easy, straightforward putt.
Meanwhile, Phil launched a 3-wood to the gully just in front of the green, leaving himself with a shot he’s practiced and perfected with his 64-degree wedge. In fact, he nearly holed his third and merely had a little tap-in for birdie.
He didn’t exactly take the easy route, but he clinched the win.
Mickelson is known to have struggled in his career on links courses, going o-for-zero in the UK until this Sunday. It’s always been a mystery as to why Phil had never cracked the secret to contending regularly at the Open Championship and/or on the Scottish links. For a player who has as much imagination as Mickelson, you’d think it’d be a bit easier for him to adjust his game to fit a style where imagination is a necessity.
Though it’s not a major championship, this win is still significant for Mickelson — if not anything else other than his confidence.
“It’s important to me, and it’s probably the biggest challenge of my career is hitting the shots that are required here,” he said. “Getting good touch on or around the greens; putting these fescue greens well, as well as controlling the ball flight in severe crosswinds.
“And so to win here and to play well here, finally win on a links golf course, it really means a lot to me, and it also builds my confidence heading into future Scottish and British Opens.”
Now, where does this rank exactly in Mickelson’s already-impressive resume of 41 wins on the PGA Tour, including four major titles, well, he’s not quite sure.
“I’s hard to say where it ranks with other events, but it’s very special to me, because I have not won here in Scotland until now. I’ve only recently, only probably the last eight or nine years, have I really started to play links golf effectively.
“I felt like the biggest challenge for me was actually putting on these greens, and the fescue grasses and the crosswinds and so forth and I putted very well this week; especially today when the wind was at its greatest and strongest. It really feels like it is fulfilling and it feels like a good accomplishment for me as a player, and so this feels really good.”
Indeed, for the first time this week, there was a proper breeze that blew intermittently 15-25mph. The temperature was also a considerable bit cooler than it had been, which made the conditions tougher and more comparable to a proper round of Scottish links golf. (And having done “field” research by playing at Skibo Castle in the morning, I can say that it was a good bit harder than it had been the other days, but it was also more fun to get a “real” experience.)
Of course, Mickelson heads into Muirfield with momentum, but as we know, it’s always difficult to win back-to-back weeks. So, now the question is, does this hurt or help Phil at The Open?
“Well, certainly is a confidence-booster,” he said. “It certainly helps my play on links golf, and having a day like today, where the weather was difficult, where I was in contention in the final group and feeling the pressure of the lead; that this can only do good things.
“But, to win any Open Championship, whether it’s the Scottish Open or the British Open, on links golf, you need some luck. You need a little bit of luck. You need some good breaks with your tee times; I had some good weather with my tee times this week. You need some good bounces. You just need a little bit of luck, as well as good play.”
Mickelson has been careful this week not to express over-confidence or raise his or others’ expectations too high, which seems like he doesn’t want to set himself up for disappointment.
He still thinks he has a long way to go with regard to conquering the art of links golf, but perhaps because he’s struggled to contend regularly on proper links courses, winning the Open would make it all the more rewarding and in Scotland, the Home of Golf, no less.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered links golf,” he said. “That’s probably overstating it a little bit. I certainly had a great week. This is a big step for me. I’ve had kind of baby steps along my career, so this means a lot.
“I think that if I were to win an Open Championship in my career, I think that would be one of the greatest accomplishments I could achieve as a player, because it’s the biggest challenge of my career, adapting my game, hitting the shots here that I have never had a chance to practice growing up. That would be the biggest accomplishment of my career if I were able to do it.”
On that note, see you at Muirfield… after I get in a round at Castle Stuart on Monday morning.