PHIL MICKELSON, the sunshine southpaw, is today savouring becoming the first left-hander in exactly half a century – and only the second in history – to capture the Open Championship.
After winning the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart last weekend, the American posted a final round 66 at Muirfield to follow on from fellow leftie Sir Bob Charles in 1963.
A birdie putt on the 18th sealed a first Open title for Mickelson by a three-stroke margin after coming from two over par at the start of the day to set the standard at three under.
Overnight leader Lee Westwood still had three holes to play when Mickelson finished, but there was an immediate sense of deja vu. In 2010, the Englishman led the Masters going into the final day only to be overhauled by the Californian maestro.
Westwood eventually finished joint third alongside Adam Scott, who once again self- combusted on the back nine, and Ian Poulter who had rocketed through the field.
Appropriately, Mickelson’s concluding round was the joint best of the week and tribute to the way he had adapted to greens that had become a bit more moist.
In doing so, Mickelson endorsed Muirfield’s reputation for producing outstanding champions, as this was his fifth major title.
Indeed, with three Masters and a USPGA under his belt, he now needs only a US Open to join the elite who have completed a grand slam of Majors.
Mickelson, 43, had twice finished runner-up in the Open, but this time he was determined not to miss out, making four birdies in the last six holes, although he highlighted a birdie at the 9th as a key moment as it left him even par and feeling settled.
Westwood, watched closely by 12-year-old son Sam, kept battling, but with the wind out of his sails he was overtaken by Henrik Stenson on even par.
Stenson, who shot a one-under 70, is the second Swede to finish runner-up along with Jesper Parnevik at Turnberry in 1994.
The third successive fortysomething to win the Open following Darren Clarke and Ernie Els, new champion Mickelson said: “What a fun day. This is some of the best golf I have ever played and the best I have ever putted.
“This (Major) is the most difficult of my career. I never knew if I would develop the skills to win on links golf.
“I thought two-under would win it for sure, but you never know what is going to happen. So to make that putt on 18 was cool because it let me relax a little bit.
“It’s amazing to be part of any British Open Championship list. To win at Muirfield feels amazing. I have incredibly different emotions from where I was a month ago with a heartbreaking loss at the US Open.”
That was a reference to how he led going into the last round but double bogeyed twice in the first five holes to miss out.
On coming to terms with links golf he said: “It’s something I didn’t know if I would be able to do.”
As for the tantalising prospect of joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen by completing a grand slam, Mickelson said: “If I am able to win the US Open and complete the career grand slam, that is the sign of a truly great player.
“Five players have done that and they are the greats of the game. I hope I will win the US Open – but it has been elusive for me.”
Mickelson could be in Scotland twice next year. He is a near certainty for the US Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles and, in the aftermath of the Open triumph, he pledged to defend his Scottish title at Royal Aberdeen.
There could be no disputing, either, that this denouement was a huge boost for the Scottish Open, as acknowledged by both Mickelson and runner-up Stenson.
Stenson said: “I am very pleased with my preparation. I came over early and had two full rounds (at Muirfield) before heading to Inverness. I knew my lines and had a good idea how to play this golf course.
“That left me less work on preparation days. In terms of playing links golf, you either play the Scottish Open or play a couple of rounds of links golf by yourself or with someone.
“I definitely believe you want to be playing links golf the week before (the Open).”
It was a case of close but no cigar for Stenson on the East Lothian links.
“I said to my caddy, maybe I can make 2 on 18 (470 yards) and get a play-off. Then I saw Phil had birdied (18) and I said ‘a hole in one is pushing it’.
“After my tee shot on 17 I thought I was one or two back but I was three back.
“I missed out on that (Mickelson) charge. That was a little bit sneaky of him!”
On the subject of charges, Ian Poulter at one stage produced a burst around the turn reminiscent of last year’s Ryder Cup when he reeled off five straight birdies in a storming finish.
Wearing tartan trousers, Poulter held the clubhouse lead with a final round 67 for +1 just as the last-out group were reaching the turn.
Making Poulter’s effort all the more remarkable was a dropped shot at the third but an eagle at the ninth sparked a trio of birdies, including a 20-footer at 11.
The sequence eventually ended when he missed an eight-foot birdie putt downhill on 13 and a dropped shot on 16 finally deflated a player who was being offered at 33-1 by bookmakers on Saturday morning.
With an hour or so left to play, Andy Murray tweeted in favour of Poulter, saying he couldn’t be ruled out but the Englishman had to be content with third place.
“I’m very, very pleased. To start the day eight back . . . but you realise that Paul Lawrie (in 1999) came from 10 back and there was a six-shot swing in four holes last year” said Poulter.
If Lothians ace Stephen Gallacher actually led the Open in the clubhouse as the pace setters prepared to tee off, fellow Scot Martin Laird was taking comfort after a difficult third round from getting in the mix at the halfway stage for the first time in a Major.
“I know I can compete – I didn’t need this week to prove it to myself,” he said.
“I want to be in contention in tournaments like this. The good news for me is in three weeks’ time there’s another Major (US PGA) on a golf course everyone has told me should suit.”
In the battle to be top Scot, Gallacher finished one shot ahead of Paul Lawrie, who said: “It’s been a great week after the start (10 over on the opening day).”
Meanwhile, 47 years after Duddington’s Ronnie Shade took the silver medal at Muirfield as leading amateur, the award went to Sheffield’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, 18, who had a final round 75.
“The biggest moment was when I hooked my ball into the shoulder-high rough on Friday and (playing partner) Russell Henley, literally as soon as it landed, sprinted after it. For me that shows . . . the ultimate gesture,” said Fitzpatrick.
Maintaining that spirit to the end of the competition, there was a notable moment when Tiger Woods and his former caddy, Steve Williams, who have had a strained relationship for some time, were seen exchanging pleasantries on the final green.
It was a fitting scene near the end of a classic Open.