Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phil Mickelson stands on the edge of the greatest major win in decades

 

Nothing Phil Mickelson does comes easy.

He’ll get himself into trouble and wriggle right back out of it time after time after time. He’s wrung birdies out of certain bogeys. He’s hit balls into galleries and watched them kick off patrons into the fairway. He’s created a Frankenstein putting stroke that’s uglier than a mutt but flows like mercury. He’s even found himself in the crosshairs of the federal government and sidestepped any real punishment. He’s Brett Favre in the pocket, Steph Curry in the backcourt, Bryce Harper with a bat; you have no idea what’ll happen next, but you have to watch.

Nothing Mickelson does comes easy, which makes this week’s British Open at Royal Troon so fascinating. Mickelson has crafted, quite simply, the finest major of his career to this point, and he’s done it with very un-Phil-like mastery and control. He heads to Sunday’s final round in the final pairing with Henrik Stenson, within sight of his best chance in years to win his sixth major.

From the tournament’s very start, winds blew Phil’s way. He began on Thursday by coming within one golf ball’s rotation of the greatest round in major history, just missing out on a 62. He followed that with a comparatively disappointing 69 on Friday that nonetheless still left him in the lead heading into the weekend.

And all was going smoothly until a brutal stretch on the back nine Saturday, when Mickelson’s tournament faced a brief moment of implosion.

To this point, the defining shot of Mickelson’s brilliant career came during his 2010 Masters victory, when he fired a shot on the 13th at Augusta through two Georgia pines about the width of a pizza box en route to a birdie and a victory. He doesn’t have that signature moment here yet, but three holes on Saturday’s inward nine define the arc of Phil Mickelson in the way half a dozen biographies couldn’t.

Mickelson stood on the 12th having just survived Royal Troon’s wicked railroad hole, the gorse-laden demon that had swallowed up the hopes of dozens in the field. Phil’s tee shot on 12 bounced in the gallery and ticked right up to the edge of gorse that would have guaranteed a bogey or worse. But Phil’s punch-out from there avoided catastrophe; his approach flew over the hole a good 15 yards but spun back to within 10 feet. One curling putt later, and Mickelson had carded his ninth straight par.

 

On the par-3 13th, Phil laid his tee shot onto the edge of the green, and Phil followed that with a winding, wending putt over a sludge-slow green that dropped in for a birdie to put him two strokes clear of Henrik Stenson.

Then, of course, Phil being Phil, where nothing comes easy, he gave it right back. Just after Mickelson watched Stenson pour in a birdie, Phil two-putted from about two feet for a slam-your-skull-on-your-putter bogey.

Astonishing par save. Picturesque birdie. Inane bogey. You can’t sum up Phil Mickelson more effectively than that.

Mickelson now heads to Sunday just one stroke behind Stenson’s -12. (Of course, Mickelson was up one stroke after 16 holes, but bogeyed as Stenson birdied the 17th for a two-shot swing. Remember: nothing comes easy.) With nobody else within five strokes , the pairing will have the feel of a Ryder Cup singles match, head-to-head with pride and glory on the line every hole.

Stenson, 40, tops the current Best Never To Win A Major list. A Stenson victory would be a fine story, the crowning achievement of a quality career. But with all due respect to Stenson, a victory for Phil Mickelson would be one of the most remarkable in recent golf history.

We don’t think of Mickelson the same way we thought of Jack Nicklaus back in 1986, but Mickelson is 46, the same age Nicklaus was when he won that legendary Masters. We’ve spent so much time with Mickelson over the last two decades that it’s a bit of a shock to realize he hasn’t won in three years, not since the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. Mickelson says he’s stronger than he’s ever been, but you still have to figure that his realistic chances in majors can be measured in the teens, at best.

If he were to win, he’d be the second-oldest winner in British Open history, behind only Old Tom Morris, who was about two months older than Mickelson is now when he won the 1867 British. Mickelson passed Morris’s total of four majors back in 2013, and one more victory would move him past Byron Nelson. He’d be just one behind Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones, and he’d belong in their company.

Eighteen holes remaining. Eighteen holes for Phil to silence the last of the doubters. Eighteen holes to transcend “best of his era” and further cement his place among the greatest golfers ever. Eighteen holes that surely won’t come easy for Phil, but 18 holes we’ll all have no choice but to watch.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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