By Dave Seanor
Phil Mickelson, with his ever-present grin intact, ambled up to the fence alongside the putting green Sunday evening and shook Dave Pelz’s hand.
“I’m so proud of you,” Pelz told him. “You played great.”
No one will dispute that. Still, Mickelson didn’t play well enough in the 133rd Open Championship to match Ernie Els and Todd Hamilton, who were behind him on the practice green, getting ready for a four-hole playoff.
“It’s a little disappointing to fall a shot shy here,” said Mickelson, who finished alone in third, three shots clear of Lee Westwood. “But it’s also very encouraging to know that I’m able to contend in this great championship.”
The formerly erratic Mickelson was a model of consistency at Troon. Other than the final outcome, everything went according to the plan hatched by him and Pelz.
His 73-66-68-68–275 scorecard included a 49-hole stretch without a bogey, beginning Thursday at the 18th and ending Sunday at No. 13.
Mickelson’s average finish was 46th in the nine of 11 previous British Opens in which he’d made the cut. His best showing had been T-11 in 2000 at St. Andrews.
“Normally I’m watching it on TV,” he had joked Saturday evening.
This time, he retreated to the scorer’s hut and watched on the tube as Hamilton bogeyed the 72nd hole, letting Els into the extra session. Mickelson had chipped in for eagle at the par-5 fourth and birdied the seventh, and figured an even-par inward nine – which he accomplished – would do the trick.
“I just didn’t see that many birdies out there (on the homeward nine),” he said. “I was just playing for pars on the back and thought shooting even par was going to be good enough.” That was the game plan all along, to make hay on the front and hang on after the turn. Only during Round 1 did he not execute it to perfection.
“I came out of a couple of shots,” Mickelson said of his 2-over effort Thursday. “I was a little tentative and didn’t play the birdie holes aggressively – I played for pars too much.”
Mickelson had calculated, correctly, that pars would be at a premium at Troon. He and Pelz, the short-game guru, spent three days on the storied links beforehand, trying “to understand where balls will tend to end up and (how) to be effective from there to the hole.”
Their research paid off in spades. Mickelson saved par 22 times on the 27 holes where he failed to hit the green in regulation. On the others, he chipped in for birdie once and made four bogeys, all on the inward nine.
Before coming to Scotland, he had worked with coach Rick Smith on low-trajectory shots.
“I kept the ball on the ground even when it wasn’t windy on the first couple of days,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t play it in the air here and I found that it was much easier to make pars.”
Mickelson’s bogey-free streak included eight birdies and an eagle on the outward nine and one birdie on the inward side. It also featured some serious good fortune at No. 15 Saturday, where his tee ball that was headed out of bounds hit a spectator and barely stayed inside the white line.
“It clearly was a tremendous break, there’s no other way around it,” he said. “Every now and then you need something like that to give you a little kickstart to keep you in there. And that certainly kept my round going.”
Mickelson – but for a three-putt double on the 71st hole of the U.S. Open and one more birdie here – was left tantalizingly close to heading for the PGA Championship with a Grand Slam in his crosshairs. Asked the “what might have been” question, his sidestep was as deft as his short game.
“I will use the same preparation methods that I used the first three majors to try to finish off the year
right at the PGA Championship,” Mickelson said. “Hopefully I’ll be ready and prepared come Thursday.”