Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Phil Mickelson flirts with major history in first round at British Open

TROON, Scotland — It was in.

It was in off the putter. It was in 10 feet from the hole. It was in 5 feet from the hole. It was in as it approached the lip. It was in. Phil Mickelson had never been more sure of anything.

He had prowled this putt, stalked this putt, talked to his caddie about this putt and, just before he settled over it, imagined this putt that would track perfectly toward the cup and give him a place in golf history as the first player to shoot 62 in a major tournament.

It was in. And so Mickelson began to walk forward, as players often do, while his 16-footer on the 18th hole at Royal Troon on Thursday rolled toward the hole. He felt the adrenaline surge. He felt joy and pride and bliss. He felt the glow of sporting immortality wash over him.

It was in.

Then it wasn't.

"I want to cry," Mickelson said.

Technically, what happened is called a lip out. Mickelson's putt skimmed off the edge of the cup and spun around it. That term, though, undersells what took place in the cool breeze of early evening in the first round of the British Open. Mickelson's putt was not going too fast, as many lip outs do, powering around the circumference of the hole. His read was not offtrack. Mickelson's line was straight, his speed was true.

Yet somehow, some way, the ball stayed out.

"I don't know how that putt didn't go in," said Ernie Els, who was playing in Mickelson's group.

No one did. But instead of becoming the first player to shoot 62 in a major, Mickelson — after cradling his head in his hands and staring in disbelief for what felt like hours — tapped in from the lip and settled for recording the 28th score of 63 in a major, a bogey-free round good enough for a three-shot lead at 8 under.

Still … Mickelson, 46, knew he most likely would never get another chance at 62.

"That putt on 18 was an opportunity to do something historical," he said. "I knew it, and with a foot to go, I thought I had done it. I saw that ball rolling right in the center. I went to go get it. I had that surge of adrenaline that I had just shot 62. And then I had the heartbreak that I didn't and watched that ball lip out. Wow, that stings."

It has been three years since Mickelson's last win, the British Open at Muirfield, where his 66 ranks among the great closing rounds in a major. Mickelson still considers it his best round.

He might not have if that 16-foot putt had dropped.

The putt was reminiscent of his putt that spun all the way around the cup in the Phoenix Open three years ago when he could have shot 59. That didn't hurt as badly as this one because five players have shot 59 on the PGA Tour. "This one's going to stay with me for a while," he said.

Asked why there had never been a 62 in a major, Mickelson pointed to his putt. "There's a curse," he said. "Because that ball should have been in."

Asked if he believes in the golf gods, Mickelson replied, "I didn't. But I do now."

And now he faces a return to reality. Of the seven previous players to open with 63 in a major, only Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open and Raymond Floyd at the 1982 PGA Championship went on to win.

"One of the biggest challenges is when you shoot a round like this, you start expectations running through your head and so forth, and that's the one thing that I'll have to try to suppress and hold off," he said. "We'll have three more rounds. We'll have varying conditions (today). It's going to be very difficult."

Phil Mickelson's big day