GULLANE, Scotland — At 43, 20-odd years into a career, athletic legacies are normally fully formed, and appearances on the greatest stages seem fleeting, a memory of what once was. But in the gray Scottish light Sunday evening, with a leader board above the grandstand that reflected some of the stoutest names in golf — Woods, Westwood, Scott and others — Phil Mickelson watched a putt roll into the bottom of the cup at Muirfield’s 18th hole, thrust both his arms skyward and held them there on his joyous walk to retrieve the ball.
Right then, in accomplishing something even the supremely confident Mickelson thought unfathomable, the possibility jumped out. He won the British Open, a tournament he once found more perplexing than calculus. If that’s possible, at 43, what next? What if — gulp — he’s just getting started?
“I never knew if I would be able to win this tournament,” Mickelson said later, greenside, as he waited to collect the claret jug. “I always hoped and believed, but I never knew it — until about an hour ago.”
What Mickelson did Sunday in winning his first British Open, his fifth major championship, was play his best golf, a round both he and caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay called the best of his career. But there is more to it than that, more than just his closing 66 that put him 3 under par for the tournament — three shots clear of the field — and more, even, than birdieing four of the final six holes.
No, what Mickelson did at Muirfield both rounded out his resume, adding a claret jug to his three Masters titles and lone PGA Championship, and opened up the possibility that if he’s playing his best golf now, more than two decades into his career, there could be more majors to come. He is an oddity: a Hall of Famer, one of the best players of his or any generation, who’s still a work in progress, perhaps improving.
“He’s stronger than he’s ever been,” said Mackay, the only caddie Mickelson has employed in a 21-year pro career. “He’s fitter than he’s ever been. He’s hungrier than he’s ever been. You can’t [overstate] how much he wants to compete and do well.”
That was right there Sunday, a day Mickelson began five shots behind leader Lee Westwood, with eight players ahead of him. Throw a dart at that 54-hole leader board, and you would have come up with a worthy champion: Westwood, 40, still on the eternal quest for his first major; Tiger Woods, desperately seeking to end a five-year drought; Adam Scott, who suffered through so much pain in last year’s Open, only to win this year’s Masters; to Hunter Mahan, Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson.
But on the range before his round, Mickelson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, spoke with Mackay. With Westwood in the lead at 3 under, Woods and Mahan two behind that, and Muirfield intimidating but not impossible, they told Mickelson that even par or 1 under could win the claret jug.
“And he goes, ‘I’m going to be better than that,’ ” Harmon said. “He wasn’t lying.”
So off he went, on a wild quest over what became a wild day. England’s Westwood, the people’s choice to start the round, held a three-shot lead as he played the par-3 seventh — a lead over the early-charging Ian Poulter (who shot a closing 67), Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (the eventual runner-up with a final-round 70) — and Mickelson, who was just making the turn.
Westwood, though, then hit the stretch that derailed his chances — pulling the wrong club at 7 and ending up in a front bunker, finding another bunker that led to his second straight bogey at 8, then finding the left rough off the tee at the par-5 ninth, Muirfield’s lone undeniable birdie hole.
“You’d like to go par-par-birdie,” Westwood said, “and I went bogey-bogey-par.”
Puff, the lead was gone. Scott eventually got to 2 under and led alone, but for the second straight year, he made four consecutive bogeys on the Open’s back nine — this stretch at 13, 14, 15 and 16 — and faded, a 75 that left him tied for third. Woods was never a true factor, struggling to 74. Mahan, in the final group with Westwood, made an eagle at 9, but gave it back with bogeys at 10 and 12.
And after he hit a 5-iron in to the 190-yard par-3 13th, Mickelson faced 10 feet for birdie.
“It was a putt that was going to make the rest of the round go one way or another,” Mickelson said, “because I just thought if I made it, it would give me some momentum.”
Not to mention make others notice. With that, Mickelson was even for the tournament. Take, right there, his own innate sense of theater, mix in the frail nerves of the groups behind him, and the title was Mickelson’s. He sealed it with a steely up-and-down at 16, and then two otherworldly strikes with his 3-wood — one from the tee, the next into the green — at the par-5 17th, leading to another birdie.
“That was when I realized that this is very much my championship, in my control,” Mickelson said.
What an unlikely statement, had it been uttered 10 hours or 10 years prior. His first 17 appearances in the British Open yielded a lone top-10 finish. Now, his name not only fits in nicely with the list of Muirfield champions — including Hagen, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Faldo, Els — but he can more easily move on from the devastation of a month ago, when he led the U.S. Open after 54 holes, only to place second for the sixth time.
“After losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south, where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back,” Mickelson said. “… I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year and some potential great play. And I’m glad I didn’t.”
When he reached the 18th green with one last brilliant 6-iron, and he rolled in the 12-foot birdie putt, he and Mackay embraced. Mickelson grew glassy-eyed. Mackay sobbed, his hat pulled low over his eyes.
“He’s a resilient guy,” Mackay said. “…How many people are going to build a practice facility in their yard, post-40? But he does, and he works really hard, and he wants it — really, really wants it.”
Mickelson now has his Masters, his PGA and his British Open. He is a U.S. Open title away from being the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam, from reshaping his legacy yet again, but this time casting it in granite.
“I think that’s the sign of a complete player,” he said.
He is, it is clear, a complete player, a career’s worth of accomplishments upon which to look back. That, though, says nothing of what could be next, because what Phil Mickelson accomplished here shows that 43 means little, that his best golf is happening right now.