Since the filing deadline for these weekly online visits doesn’t allow for the completion of Sunday play there was no chance to react to the spectacle at Muirfield a week ago. And given hindsight is always more reliable than advance speculation allow two observations.
Phil Mickelson deserves every accolade thrown his direction over the last week. It was a tour de force performance on golf’s oldest stage. He slew not only the demons of Sunday at Merion and the US Open but two decades of inability to match his game to the demands of an Open setup. His come from behind three-stroke win was the finest final day performance at the Open since …..one year ago.
The similarities are remarkable. Here we have a guy in his early 40’s, six shots back at the start of the day, picks up four birdies on the final nine for a 32 and birdies the 18th to seal the win. Meanwhile the guy he is chasing, Adam Scott, bogeys four straight holes coming in to surrender the lead and produce a dramatic Open champion.
What impresses me the most about this story is I just described Ernie Els winning the 2012 Open Championship at Lytham, not Phil Mickelson. Also given where Els was in the game going into the Open in 2012 and where Mickelson was this year, I would classify the Els win as far more unlikely. Then again Ernie doesn’t have the hype machine going for him that Phil has and the golf media suffers from Alzheimer’s when it comes to reporting.
I thought Mickelson was absolutely great and the shots with his wife and kids and the tears from is caddy and the whole finally won the Open is great. But as I have just tried to point out it is really Déjà vu for anybody with a mind that retains information for more than a week.
This week I was part of a conversation with Jack Nicklaus in advance of the PGA Championship and two things struck me from Nicklaus’s remarks.
Of Jack’s eighteen major wins, eight came from off the lead going into the final day. When I asked him about the mentality of chasing as opposed to leading he said he liked the feeling of going into the final nine needing to make up shots. He felt it forced him to play aggressive golf and even though he defended leads as effectively as Tiger Woods has done, he said he never liked trying to manage the equation of aggression vs. discretion.
If you think about it that may be a key to the successes and failures of last week’s winner. How many times in the lead has Mickelson let people down and how often when the situation dictated he play to his personality did he succeed. There’s a difference between putting your foot on the accelerator when the field is trailing and when you are on the final lap and have no other option.
The other point Nicklaus made was for more analytical than mine. The Golden Bear said he thought for most of Mickelson’s career he tried to impose his game on the course and believed he was talented enough to win out. In looking at his Muirfield win Nicklaus saw a player who at 43 let his maturity recognize that when you have the tools that Mickelson possesses, fitting your game to the course is a surrender of ego not accomplishment.
I have always been a skeptic of Mickelson, and I look forward to see if this incarnation lasts.
The other story for me, and others, was again the weekend failure of Tiger Woods. While Mickelson was charming Tiger was offending. Open microphones were again witness to the less than appropriate language of Woods venting his frustration. And make no mistake Tiger is frustrated. How can he not be when he has played seven consecutive majors without breaking 70 on the weekend?
And I will admit to my own frustration with the disingenuous rationales Tiger is serving up to the rest of us. After posting a three over 73 to see the finish line but yet again fail to cross it first Tiger opined his issue was a failure to adjust to the slowness of the greens on the weekend. He cited comments from other players supporting his defense of failure.
I have heard this song from this artist now too many times to find it a Golden Oldie. At Winged Foot when he understandably struggled following the death of his father, Woods missed his first major cut as a professional and pointed to never quite getting the speed right on the greens.
At Oakmont when Angel Cabrera walked away with an US Open title that Woods clearly had within his reach Tiger afterwards explained that he was never on the right side of the hole and couldn’t handle the speed.
No doubt his 33 putts on Sunday at Muirfield where a major factor in his inability to close the deal, but I’m sorry if that alters his failure to win. Putting is always going to be nearly half the game and being inept, for whatever reason in that area, makes you just as flawed as failing in any other aspect of the game.
More to the point, Woods is hiding from the truth in his remarks, either from us or even himself. It is at the other end of the hole that Tiger is still lacking.
I said all through his scandal and slump I thought Tiger would make it back and Nicklaus’ eighteen majors were doable. I will amend that statement. If Tiger cannot figure out a way to make the driver at least a major contributor to his game, he will fall short of his boyhood goal of surpassing Nicklaus.
Unlike Mickelson, Tiger doesn’t have the good sense to decommission the club completely. He now plays majors essentially with thirteen clubs in the bag because the driver is there, he just rarely uses it and even more rarely uses it effectively.
You could argue that Tiger’s Open quest ended on the par 5, 17th on Saturday. Playing into a stiff breeze, he opted for the three wood off the tee and came up decidedly short. Now forced to gamble, he tried to rope another three wood over the distant cross-bunkers and failed. He went on to bogey the hole and never regained his momentum again.
On Sunday Mickelson too employed a pair of three woods at seventeen and birdied the hole, but unlike Tiger, the three woods Mickelson employed were custom builds from Callaway and intended to compensate for the absence of a driver in his bag.
Mickelson found redemption at Muirfield for his Merion disappointment, will the PGA at Rochester be the moment when Tiger gets all the way back.