x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Phil Mickelson has to grin and bear it yet again

A failure to close out majors prevents the American golfer from becoming one of the greats of the game.

Phil Mickelson was tied for the lead at Royal St George's at one point during the final round of the British Open on Sunday but came up short.
Phil Mickelson was tied for the lead at Royal St George's at one point during the final round of the British Open on Sunday but came up short.

The smile remained fixed on Phil Mickelson's face long after the circumstances of the day should have wiped it off.

It stayed there through a missed two-footer and after the final iron shot he sent deep into the grandstands on the 18th hole when the British Open had all but been decided.

That yet another major championship had slipped away did not seem to matter. Or maybe it did, and this was Mickelson's way of dealing with the two-footer that sealed his fate just like so many missed short putts from championships before.

"Just a stupid mistake," Mickelson said. "There was nothing to it."

If you had just tuned in as Mickelson walked off the 18th green, laughing with his caddie, you would not have realised that for a time he had a very real chance to win his first British Open.

You would not have guessed that at one point he had surged into a tie for the lead, only to let yet another one get away.

You would not have known that it was all because his new attitude was just to have fun and let the putts fall where they may.

This is, after all, a guy who knows how to take defeat well.

"That was some of the most fun I've had competitively," Mickelson said. "It was really a fun start, and it was exciting."

Indeed it was, for as long as it lasted. They do not call him "Phil the Thrill" for nothing, yet Mickelson still needs to learn how to close out a golf tournament.

That has been a problem for him for a long time now. It has made a career that might have been great merely pretty good.

A lot of close calls in major championships. Not nearly enough wins.

The pattern continued on Sunday on the links on the south-east coast of England, where Mickelson did well to make a contest of things when no one else seemed to want to challenge Darren Clarke. A 20-footer on the sixth hole got him close, and a long eagle putt on the next hole put Mickelson five under for the day and suddenly in a tie for the lead.

Almost as quickly, though, he faded. And it began - as almost all Mickelson meltdowns begin - with a missed short putt.

This one came on the 11th on a par putt so short it was shocking. Mickelson pushed it for a bogey, the first of four he would make over six holes.

By the time he hit an iron shot into the fifth row of the grandstand well right of the 18th green, it no longer mattered.

Mickelson would finish tied with Dustin Johnson, three shots back. Instead of getting his name on the coveted Claret Jug, he got it on a silver tray.

About the only consolation to Mickelson is that he had not had that feeling at the British Open very often. His record here is his worst at any of the majors, with only two top 10s in 17 tries. He has never won a British or a US Open, though now he can add his second-place finish to his five runners-up in the other Open. Overall, Mickelson has 17 top-three finishes in 76 major championships, with three US Masters titles and one PGA Championship to show for it.

He did not talk about all the close calls afterward, preferring instead to focus on what he said was a new attitude where he tries to be upbeat and have as much fun as possible on the golf course.

He believes his game has suffered in recent years because he has not done that, though he has also had to deal with his wife, Amy, undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the same time.

Mickelson said earlier in the week he was hitting the ball better than he ever had before, and he lurked around par through the first three rounds.

But while he is usually a focal point in big tournaments, no one paid him much attention until he came out and shot 30 on the front nine of a course that is tough to play even in the best conditions.

If Mickelson could not win, he was happy that Clarke could.

Mickelson and his wife held hands in solidarity with Clarke at the 2006 Ryder Cup closing ceremony in Ireland after the death of his wife, Heather.

And Clarke was one of the first to call Mickelson to talk about what to expect when Amy was diagnosed with the disease.

Mickelson waited off the 18th green after signing his scorecard so he could congratulate his friend on his first major championship win.

This time, he had something to really smile about.