Mickelson flirts with history
TROON, Scotland — Phil Mickelson was 16 feet away from a place in history he wouldn't have to share with anyone.
Fans watched from a rooftop balcony. Royal Troon members strained to see out the window from the clubhouse behind the 18th green. Jack Nicklaus usually doesn't watch golf on TV, but he made an exception for this moment.
In 436 majors held over the last 156 years, no one had ever shot 62.
That's still the case. By a fraction of an inch.
"I want to cry," Mickelson said.
Mickelson pointed his putter toward the hole and was ready to step into history Thursday in the British Open when his birdie putt turned sharply to the right at the mouth of the hole, just enough to ride the edge around the back of the cup and sit there, teasing him.
"You made a beautiful read and putt on that last hole but got absolutely stone-cold robbed," Nicklaus said in a message on Facebook.
Mickelson plopped his hand on his forehead in disbelief. His caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, was so stunned that he fell over backward.
"It was one of the best rounds I've ever played ... and yet I want to shed a tear right now," Mickelson said. "That putt on 18 was an opportunity to do something historical. 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."
No tears were necessary at Royal Troon, not after a round of 63 that was brilliant even by Lefty's standards, and certainly not after building a three-shot lead over Patrick Reed and Martin Kaymer on an ideal day by the Irish Sea.
Mickelson seized the moment with a birdie on the par-5 16th from a bunker short of the green, and a 4-iron to 15 feet for birdie on the par-3 17th to reach 8-under par. He knew no one had ever shot 62 in a major. He also knew he most likely would never get a chance like this.
"That would have been really something special," he said. "So to have that putt lip out, that's going to sting for a while."
Even with such a close call, Mickelson is in good company.
Nicklaus missed a putt just inside 3 feet for a 62 in the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Greg Norman had to only two-putt from 30 feet for a 62 at Turnberry in the 1986 British Open and took three putts. Tiger Woods watched his 15-foot putt for 62 spin 270 degrees around the cup in the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills. Nick Price's birdie putt for a 62 in the 1986 Masters dipped in and out of the cup.
Asked why there had never been a 62 in the major, Mickelson pointed to his putt.
"There's a curse," he said. "Because that ball should have been in."
It wasn't for a lack of effort. He went with a 6-iron to play a baby cut back toward the hole, and it worked out perfectly. He brought in his caddie and told him that "I need your best read." Ernie Els did his part, putting out of turn to turn the stage over to Mickelson.
The pace was perfect. The putt looked perfect — until it wasn't. By a fraction.
"I saw that ball going in and I just had a good, clear vision of what was going to happen," he said. "What I didn't see was what happened."
And now, he faces a return to reality.
Of the seven previous players to open with a 63 in a major, only Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open and Raymond Floyd at the 1982 PGA Championship went on to win.
Royal Troon might not be this gentle the rest of the week. The forecast was for strong wind and rain for Friday, especially when Mickelson and Kaymer play in the morning. Lefty was ready to embrace whatever came his way.
"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 tomorrow. It's going to be very difficult."
Eight Americans were among the top 11 on the leaderboard at Royal Troon, where they have won the Open the last six times. That group included Steve Stricker, the 49-year-old in his first major this year, and Justin Thomas, the 23-year-old in his first British Open.
Defending champion Zach Johnson had a chance to shoot 63 if he birdied the last two holes. He went bogey-bogey for a 67.
But this day was all about Mickelson, who never seriously came close to making bogey. He missed only three greens and two fairways, one on the 18th when he switched to a 3-wood and, realizing what was at stake, sent his shot toward a pot bunker.
It bounced just far enough left to avoid it. It looked as though everything was going to his way. Right until the final inch.