Monday, July 19, 2004

Mickelson's gutsy performance wins over Scottish fans

The (Glasgow, Scotland) Herald

TROON, Scotland - No disrespect to Todd Hamilton - a likeable bloke from a town with a buried elephant and an unpronounceable name somewhere in Illinois - but it was Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els that the Royal Troon crowds were cheering for most vociferously Sunday.

The popularity of Els, beaten in a play-off with Hamilton, is no mystery whatsoever. If you try combing Els' relations with golf fans, fellow-players, marshals or even journalists, you'll hardly find a sour moment among them.

Mickelson's popularity is more complex, and the rooting for the reigning Masters champion is based on three reasons.

First, Mickelson only won his first major at Augusta in April after years of public suffering. Second, the British Open Championship itself, with Mickelson's endless finishes of tied-66th here and tied-73rd there, only contributed to those years of anguish.

The third reason for Mickelson's popularity is something more old-fashioned, more chivalrous. While Tiger Woods and even the infinitely-likeable Els amble along and grab children's visors for signing while they keep walking, Mickelson is altogether more appreciative and attentive towards the public.

The United Nations itself couldn't improve the San Diego golber in public diplomacy as Mickelson stops for 20 minutes at a time, smiles warmly, looks each child in the eye, and then himself says the "thank you" as he hands back each signed item.

Sunday, based on this popularity, Troon could live with Mickelson failing again, by a shot. They could live with it because this golfer's pain is over. Of course, after a tie for 2nd at last month's U.S. Open and a third-placed finish Sunday after a final round of 68, Mickelson's anguish is not yet complete. But it's a nice balm knowing you won at Augusta three months ago.

On a thrilling final day at Troon, one vintage moment in Mickelson's closing round beside Retief Goosen summed up his sparkling golf. On the par-5 fourth hole, taking that beloved pitching-wedge like a precious artifact in his fingers, he coaxed a pitch-and-run shot from 30 yards into the hole.

At that moment, with wild whooping and cheering erupting even from a studied, stoical Scottish crowd, you could see again that decorum and civility are in Mickelson's body as emphatically as his blood. Briefly touching his visor, he smiled bashfully and looked almost embarrassed to acknowledge the celebrating audience.

It left Mickelson finishing the week with rounds of 73, 66, 68, 68 with not a trace of bitterness or pique crossing his lips.

"I'll be honest with you, what Ernie and Todd did out there today is incredible," he said afterwards. "There was a very difficult crosswind and to get the ball close to the hole the way they did to get birdies is incredible. I played for pars coming up the back nine today because I thought shooting par was going to be good enough.

"Sure, to miss out by a shot is disappointing. I've played three good rounds since my opening 73 and to go these three rounds with only one bogey is something I'm quite proud of. But it was tough to come back from being seven shots adrift after the first day. I guess you could say a lot of things could and couldn't have happened over the next 54 holes.

"I love this tournament. I've worked hard on the shots that are required over here and I feel I've executed them quite well. It is a wonderful test of golf. So while it's disappointing to fall short, at least I now know I can contend in this great championship."

Mickelson must know by now about the vagaries of the classic Scottish summer. In six previous assaults on the Open in this country, in which only once had he finished in the top-20, it had been the baffling range of chill, cloud, spit of rain and bright sunshine which seemed to throw him off course.

Sunday he was re-acquainted with these old climatic pals - once more they all turned out on the same afternoon to see him - but by now he is immune to their confusions. Instead, beneath a cover of cloud, Mickelson took the course and the day's abundant weather to task with a range of shots and innovations.

Following the fourth hole, the other great moment revealing his new flush of confidence on Scottish linksland came at the 11th. From 220 yards and clutching a 4-iron down the handle, Mickelson again punched a low, raking shot beyond the humps and hollows onto the green to 18 feet.

"Go on, keep going!" he cried after his ball as he watched it piercing the breeze. At that moment you remembered that the old saw about golf remains true: seeing these fine craftsmen executing their shots live in the flesh is a vivid and exhilarating experience.

The other aspect about Mickelson's play - and after the opprobrium of recent years, perhaps this should go on his tombstone - is that he had guts. Sunday, just like Friday afternoon, the number of times he rescued himself on a green was extraordinary.

On the ninth, for instance, after a misjudged chip, Mickelson struck a nerveless, strong putt from 12 feet up a deceptive gradient and into the hole. Then on the 10th, having hit a second shot over the back of the green, he again chipped back to 14 feet before sinking his putt solidly. On these and other occasions, this was no shirker before the challenge.

"I've had my good fortune, I've had my breaks," said Mickelson. "So it doesn't hurt me. Now I can really say I'm looking forward to next year at St Andrews."

It doesn't hurt Mickelson any longer because he has proved beyond dispute, on the fairways and already in the ledgers of major championships, that he is a great golfer.

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