When reviewing a list of Open champions at Muirfield, one common theme emerges. Greatness. Nicklaus has won at Muirfield, Watson, Player, Trevino, Faldo – all the way back to Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon.
So when the leader board heading into Sunday’s final round of this year’s Open Championship at Muirfield consisted of some of current golf’s greatest names – Woods, Scott, Westwood, Mickelson – it was surely no surprise. The course showed its teeth throughout the week (particularly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoon), with lightning-fast fairways that required well-struck shots to avoid the wispy and omnipresent fescue.
Good golf was rewarded this week at Muirfield, but even more so, bad golf was punished. As evidenced by scores like Martin Laird’s quintuple-bogey 9 on the third hole Saturday, or Shiv Kapur’s fall from brief stardom (6-under through 7 on Thursday) to finish 15-over for the week, a golfer could not afford to let his mind wander for a shot. If he were to do so, a bogey train was inevitable.
But for all the hardships endured by this week’s field, which produced an 8-over par cut when Camilo Villegas double-bogeyed the 18th hole late Friday to allow 15 more players into weekend play, the course provided birdie opportunities for those who kept the ball in play. And of all days, Sunday was receptive to scoring, something you rarely see at a certain Open back across the Atlantic.
It was seen early on when Fred Couples (in the field on the strength of last year’s win at the Senior British) got it to 3-under through 13 holes in his final round, only to be derailed by a double-bogey 7 on the par-5 17th and finish the day at even-par for a T-32 finish. It was seen when the flashy and aggressive Ian Poulter, bolstered by a pre-tournament putter change, went on an eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie binge around the turn en route to a 4-under 67 and T-3 finish at 1-over for the week.
When Poulter finished, it even appeared that he had an outside shot to make a playoff.
But that was without factoring in Phil Mickelson, the fan favorite who won last week’s Scottish Open and claims to have grown a newfound appreciation for links golf over the years. Mickelson has rarely been a factor at the Open Championship, with his traditional high ball flight not usually well-served to shots that demand low trajectory (especially when the winds start whipping), but he has fared better in recent years and hung around the first page of the leader board all week at Muirfield.
It’s a cliche, but the old adage that the tournament doesn’t start until the back nine Sunday came true at this year’s Open. With a myriad of subplots including Adam Scott gunning for redemption after letting last year’s Open slip away, Lee Westwood going for his first major after countless near-misses over the last few years, and of course Woods, the tournament was up for the taking as the leaders made the turn. Westwood entered the day with the lead and held a share of it well into the round, Scott held the lead by himself for a brief moment at 2-under, and Henrik Stenson announced himself in the mix on the heels of a front-nine 34.
But it was Mickelson, the Hall of Famer with three Masters, a PGA and six runner-up U.S. Open finishes to his credit, who became the next legend to add his name to the list of celebrated winners at Muirfield. Mickelson birdied 13 and 14 to grab the lead by himself at 1-under as everyone else jockeyed for position, and positioned himself for the win by ripping a 3-wood from over 270 yards to 25 feet on the par-5 17th, setting up a two-putt birdie that extended the lead to two. Although birdies were certainly a reasonable goal on Sunday, the two-shot lead made it near-certain that a par on 18 would win it for Mickelson, as the final group of Westwood and Hunter Mahan only had four holes or so to try to catch up.
Phil erased any semblance of doubt with a birdie at the tough 18th, as his approach landed just over the edge of a bunker and rolled inside 15 feet. He drained the putt to post a remarkable 66, one of the finest rounds of golf seen in recent years under the circumstances, and unleashed a few emotions as he embraced longtime caddy Jim Mackay.
The result was long in doubt at this year’s Open Championship, with first-round leader Zach Johnson, second-round leader Miguel Angel Jimenez and third-round leader Westwood failing to sustain the proper momentum under the gun. The 49-year-old, cigar-loving Jimenez was a fun subplot, as was 21-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, and of course the enigmatic Woods, who posted 74 on Sunday to finish T-6 and keep the critics questioning whether he will ever win another major. Over four days of hot Scottish weather on a baked-out course that has stood the test of time by simply demanding accurate and well-judged shots, it suffices to say the course beat 155 of the 156 players who teed it up on Thursday.
When it was all said and done, one man stood alone under par. Phil Mickelson, a well-deserving major champion for the fourth time, after one of the greatest final rounds in the annals of major championship golf.
Although he finished 3-under par, Phil didn’t beat the course. He simply played it to a draw. On one of the best and most historic courses in the game, that was surely enough.