Klein: It doesn't get any better than Open Sunday

Phil Mickelson during Sunday's final round of the 2013 British Open at Muirfield.

If there’s a better way to spend a Sunday morning than watching the Open Championship, I have no idea what it is. The more so when the end is as emotionally fulfilling as Phil Mickelson’s triumph at Muirfield.

All week, the wind blew, the players struggled, the golf course looked fearsome, and nobody managed to dominate or establish himself as a clear favorite. Steady marches out front, like Louis Oosthuizen’s in 2010 at St. Andrews, make for boring theater when viewed live. The beauty of golf is the fight down the finish. And thankfully, this one wound up to a steady crescendo that culminated in Mickelson birdieing the last two holes. Best of all, there was no real tragic element – unlike last year at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, when Adam Scott simply fell apart at the end.

This one had everything, including eight or nine players making a serious run. For a few hours it favored Englishman Lee Westwood, with a promising all-England storyline that ran Justin Rose (U.S. Open), Andy Murray (Wimbledon), and perhaps . . . Westwood. But things got interesting thanks to a surprise challenge from his countryman, Ian Poulter, who was two hours ahead of home when he went on a five-hole streak of 3s that saw the sartorial wonder gain five shots to par. That’s when we started noticing that Westwood’s conventional strength, his driving and ball striking, were faltering. Yet he ironically was salvaging pars and good bogeys with the one club that had historically betrayed him, the putter.

A major exposes weaknesses big time, especially when there’s wind. With Tiger Woods we saw as clear as day today that, for all his greatness as a scorer and a scrambler, he has trouble adjusting to altered green speeds and trouble getting his tee shots into play with the driver or 3-wood when he has to. You can win a major with 13 clubs working, but not with only 12 or 11.

Links golf is endlessly fascinating to watch. Or perhaps I’m just finding an excuse for what turned out to be seven to eight hours a day transfixed since Thursday, when I should have been working. There’s something so revealing about a golfer’s character when they are forced to handle crazy conditions.

Woods, frustrated early Sunday, made TV censors wish by the fifth hole Sunday that they could exercise more audio damping. Mickelson, meanwhile, suffered the bad break of a perfectly struck 6-iron to the par-3 16th backing up 35 yards into rough – and simply watched the roll, assessed his recovery and made yet another brilliant one-putt to save himself.

You don’t shoot 32 on the back nine without having composure amid stress. That 32 seems to be the magic number for coming out of the pack at majors. It’s the same number for his final nine that Padraig Harrington shot at Royal Birkdale to steal the title from Ian Poulter and Greg Norman in 2008. And he did it again – 32 – when he surprised Sergio Garcia at the very next major, the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

And now there’s the amazing Phil. He’s no naïf when it comes to making golf history. As he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in an unusually revealing interview after Sunday’s round, he (Mickelson) knew that his bold second shot at the par-5 17th hole was perilous. Here he was, in the rush of a final round, standing over a 3-wood off the deck from 302 yards out into the wind, and he could call up the image of a bunkered Paul Azinger in 1987 on that same hole losing his lead to ultimate winner Nick Faldo.

It says something about Mickelson that his brain works that way under pressure. After a decade of acquiring a reputation for a brain that worked too hard and that led him to tempt fate too many times, he has won the hearts of golfers, and now of Scotsmen and Scotswomen, by playing bravely when the moment called for it.

You get the sense with Mickelson, unlike with Woods, that winning isn’t everything. How else could he manage to joke afterwards that if six second-place finishes in the U.S. Open counted as a win, he’d now hold the Grand Slam in his arms?

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