Wiedmer: Mickelson's triumph a win for the masses

Wiedmer: Mickelson's triumph a win for the masses

July 22nd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Phil Mickelson of the United States holds the Claret Jug trophy as he is driven away in a buggy from the press conference after winning the British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield, Scotland, Sunday July 21, 2013.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

It was one of those moments that makes us stay in love with sports.

Having masterfully massaged the biggest birdie putt of his career into Muirfield's 18th cup Sunday afternoon, Phil Mickelson manfully hugged his faucet-eyed caddie "Bones" Mackay, then turned his attention to his wife, Amy, and their three kids.

In one of those group hugs that only an Extreme Home Makeover episode could top, Phil the Thrill shared a long, strong embrace with his family, exclaiming to the clan, "I did it," and, "I love you guys."

At that moment he needed the claret jug just to hold all the tears of joy flowing throughout one of golf's most storied addresses.

And that all took place at least 30 minutes before Mickelson officially won the first British Open and fifth overall major of his 21-year career.

"To play what is arguably the best round of my career, to putt the way I putted, to shoot the round of my life, it just feels amazing," Lefty said as he clutched the silver jug that's one of sports' most famous trophies.

It was amazing, this 66 Mickelson fired over a sun-burned, wind-whipped layout that yielded an average final-round, two-over-par score of 73, which was actually one stroke better than His Stripeness, Tiger Woods, could manage.

And the final nine was even better. Recording birdies on four of the last six holes -- including both 17 and 18 -- Mickelson gunned a 32. The average on the back nine was 36.5.

That's how you come from five strokes down with 18 to go to win by three. That's why you're already in the Hall of Fame. That's also why ESPN's Paul Azinger rightly labeled Mickelson's sensational Sunday: "This will go down as one of the best rounds ever at a major."

But that's not what creates warm, happy tears. Excellence of craft creates applause for a job well done. It's the salute Tiger used to hear at golf's grandest stages. It's the standing ovation that was always aimed Jack Nicklaus's way before his advancing age and his more frequent smiles made the Golden Bear a warmer, fuzzier story.

No, what Mickelson is experiencing as he rolls headstrong into his early 40s (43) is something on the fringe of what Arnold Palmer always enjoyed.

He is becoming the people's champ, his easy smile and swashbuckling style an engraved invitation for the masses to come along for the ride. It might be bumpy, it might be heartbreaking, but it will never be dull. And unlike a weekend with Tiger, your children won't need earplugs to block out the expletives.

Or as Azinger noted, "Phil loves people and they love him back."

His flight home to California to attend his daughter's middle school graduation the night before this year's U.S. Open began might be one reason why. It may be a big reason why he ultimately finished second for a record sixth time, but it surely earned him a few Father of the Year awards.

It could also be this: When a bad bounce left him 60 or more feet from the hole and off the green on No. 16 on Sunday instead of the 20 feet he could have been from the hole putting for birdie, Mickelson didn't loudly unleash a curse word or two, as Tiger often did over the weekend.

Instead, he turned to Mackay and said, "Oh, I can get this up and down."

To which Bones reportedly replied, "Cool."

Or it could be a Mickelson quote from the past, one recalled by ESPN's crew on Sunday. Discussing great shots and smart shots, Phil the Thrill once said, "Great shots are the ones you pull off. Smart shots are the ones you don't have the guts to attempt."

If that's not the essence of Palmer, nothing is. Never up, never in, he used to say and what Arnie sometimes lacked in polish he never lacked in passion. The guy had more charisma in his golf glove than Nicklaus had in his whole golf bag.

Thus was Arnie's Army not just the country club crowd dripping in pearls, seersucker shorts and polo shirts, but also the weekend hacker at the local muni course who hitched up his britches and went to work each day just like good ol' Arnie.

This isn't to say it's been a seamless road to now. Mickelson had barely begun to write his professional biography before Tiger pretty much swallowed the game whole. It made His Stripeness a billionaire and the Thrill something of an afterthought.

But then came 2009. Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer early that year and Phil took a leave of absence. Six months later, on Thanksgiving weekend, Tiger's wife discovered his brain had taken a leave of absence for years, the world's most famous athlete reportedly cavorting with a number of women other than her, including strippers and escorts.

Ever since then, Phil's popularity has soared as Tiger's has waned. And on Sunday, another Open Championship for the taking, so did Mickelson's golf game, the world No. 2 finishing Muirfield's 18 holes in eight fewer strokes than Woods, who's still the world No. 1.

"He's got the whole package," said Azinger of Mickelson. "Tremendous power. Great touch. And he studied psychology in college. He's got it all."

Or at least one of each of the four majors except the U.S. Open, which he is yet to conquer.

Yet in typical Mickelson fashion, even that elicited a joke on Sunday, the Thrill noting with a grin, "And if six seconds could count as a win, I'd have all four of them."

That's why the people love him back.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.