There’s not a whole lot of “deserve” in the world of sports. In a way, it’s the ultimate meritocracy — on any given day, at any given hour, you simply have to be better than your opponent. That’s just how the world works. There aren’t any participation ribbons on the game’s grandest stages. You earn everything you get.
Still, it would be hard to argue that any player out there was easier to pull for than Phil Mickelson at the Open Championship this week. Just a month ago, Mickelson was as low as he could be, having just notched another heartbreaking runner-up in the U.S. Open. Surely, he wouldn’t be thinking that the Open, a tournament that has befuddled him for the better part of his career, would be a breakthrough. Still, he’s just the type of guy you can’t help but like.
That’s just not the way Mickelson is built, it would seem. Sure, he may not always be the happy-go-lucky kid from San Diego who’s still living his (and many, many other people’s) dream, but he has a perspective on the game that few who reach his level of success can maintain. Even at his lowest moments, he has an ability to take a step back from himself, figure out what he needs to do better and move on. You won’t see him cursing out his caddie and long-time friend Jim “Bones” Mackay or ignoring fans who crowd around for just a moment with one of their heroes. That’s part of what makes him special.
Mickelson started the day five shots back of 54-hole leader Lee Westwood, and it looked like he would have a mountain to climb to get to the top. Instead of letting the pressure of yet another major challenge get to him, Mickelson found a new level of confidence in his game at just the right time.
Just before Mickelson teed off on Sunday, his coach, Butch Harmon, told him that he might only need to reach level par or even one over to win. Mickelson’s response?
“I’m going to be better than that.”
That he was. Never was it more evident than on the par-5 17th. Playing without a driver in his bag, Mickelson hit two of the best 3-woods you’ll ever see to reach the green in two, a feat in and of itself on the Muirfield turf this week. His two-putt for birdie gave him the lead, which proved to be insurmountable. It was one of the bravest, best-executed series of shots I’ve ever seen from Mickelson. That’s the payoff from the years of work he’s put into golf, and we saw a preview of it last week with his Scottish Open victory.
After the round, Mickelson repeatedly said that he played the best, most memorable round of his career. For a player who went the first 42 majors of his career without a victory, that’s certainly saying something. I can’t disagree, as that will be a round that most of us who were fortunate enough to see it will be telling our children about years from now.
There was just something about the shot of Mickelson and Mackay, who have worked together for over 20 years, embracing on the 18th green after Mickelson finished the tournament with a birdie, all but guaranteeing the victory. If there’s anybody who “deserves” the success, it’s Mickelson.
After all, he’s earned it.