When last we golfed in this space, Phil Mickelson was the main subject. Had he smiled his way to an unnecessary loss in the U.S. Open last month?
One way to find out was to see how he’d do in the next major, the British Open, played over the last four days in chilly and reserved Scotland. The gallery gave Mickelson serious, respectful applause as he walked up the 18th at Royal Troon yesterday. But until that moment, there was no indication he’d been the object of fan attention during any of his four rounds. Thus unlike the situation he faced last month he was free this time to focus exclusively on his game, without having to worry about being nice to a madding crowd. The new environment worked wonders.
After a bit of a rocky first day Mickelson was brilliant over the last three. Unlike last month he never beat himself. He did most everything right, coming through with clutch chips and putts, and appeared on the verge of an impressive major win. Yet still he lost. Again, though, it wasn’t his fault. The two players who finished ahead of him managed to score a few unlikely birdies, this despite Mickelson’s textbook birdie on the par 5 sixteenth. It’s probably a forgone conclusion that yesterday he clinched player of the year honors for 2004.
Runner-up Ernie Els had said of player Skip Kendall on Friday, “He’s perfect for links golf. He hits the ball pretty low, he hits it straight, and is a good putter.” Turns out he was could have been describing the fellow who beat him and Mickelson, Todd Hamilton, as impressive an unlikely winner as any in memory. Els might have added that a good short game is also a key requirement — Hamilton’s chipping proved sensational, particularly down the stretch. Often in golf an unknown player will come out of nowhere to play a fine early round only to fall back on the weekend. Hamilton impressed not only by not fading but by asserting himself and regaining the lead in the final nine holes. At 38 he’d paid plenty of dues. He knew what he was doing.
A not unexpected nervous drive cost him a bogey on the final hole of regulation, yet his steadiness returned for the four-hole playoff where it was Els who faltered just enough for Hamilton to eke out his win. In victory he was as gracious and composed as someone out of Chariots of Fire. Except this was a Midwesterner, another everyman who automatically knew how to play the part of American ambassador to the world when the moment called for it. It’s a blessed country that produces the likes of Todd Hamilton — and Phil Mickelson.
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