SANDWICH, England—There was a spell on Sunday afternoon when the 2011 British Open looked as if it might be one for the ages.
Darren Clarke, the third-round leader, had eagled the par-five seventh a few minutes earlier to reclaim the outright lead from Phil Mickelson. Mickelson, playing three groups ahead, was in the midst of an unholy charge up the leaderboard. He had shot an astounding five-under-par 30 on the front nine, including an eagle on the same seventh hole, and at precisely 4:01 p.m. rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt on the 10th to reclose the gap with Clarke to a single stroke.
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Let’s pause for a moment right there, because it’s how the 140th rendition of golf’s oldest championship ought to be remembered.
Clarke, 42 years old, of Northern Ireland, was the clear local favorite. He has won 14 times on the European Tour and will almost certainly one day be the European Ryder Cup captain.
But he’d never won a major, despite playing in 53 of them before this week, including 19 previous British Opens, and there was a prevailing sense that this may be his last, best chance. After shooting opening rounds of 68, 68 and 69, he said Saturday that he was playing some of the best golf of his life.
But Mickelson, with 39 PGA Tour wins including four majors, was only slightly less popular than Clarke around the Royal St. George’s course. And at 41 years old, there was a sense that this might be one of his last, best chances to finally win a British Open.
He had predicted Saturday that he needed to shoot at least four or five under par to give himself a chance of hoisting the Claret Jug. Through 10 holes, Mickelson was dead on pace. His front-nine 30, which might have been a 29 but for a 10-foot birdie effort on the ninth that lipped out of the hole, had the verve and excitement of a back-nine charge at Augusta National. The historically minded were recalling Greg Norman’s closing-round 64 on the same course in 1993, arguably his finest moment.
Royal St. George’s is known for its brutality. The wind for most of Mickelson’s front-nine run was blowing steadily at 20 to 25 miles an hour, with gusts to 35 miles and hour, and it was punctuated by brief lashes of driving-hard rain. Afterwards Mickelson called that stretch of holes among the most-exciting of his competitive career. “It was one of those times where you’re not thinking birdie and things were just happening,” he said. “I’m not planning about making a 50 footer for eagle (on No. 7), but it just happens. I hit some of the best shots I’ve ever hit in the wind.”
Clarke’s front nine wasn’t as incendiary, but given the pressure he must have been feeling as the leader, it was just as impressive. He holed a nervy 20-footer for par on the first, amid wind that was whipping his trousers; curled in a tricky left-to-right five-footer for par on the third; and effortlessly drained a 15-footer, after a super downwind layup, for the eagle on No. 7.
So there you have it: the British Open in a nutshell. There are a few subsequent details, but alas they’re sadly anticlimactic
Mickelson missed a didly two-foot par putt on the 11th hole, to fall back to five-under. And then, in an attempt to make up lost ground, he began pressing for more birdies and made bogeys instead on 13, 15 and 16. He finished with a 68 for a two-under-par total, but he was out of contention before Clarke got started on the back nine.
Dustin Johnson, playing with Clarke, briefly took up the dramatic slack. The long-hitting American, who missed some crucial up-and-down opportunities on the front, birdied the 10th and 12th holes to move to five-under par, two behind Clarke. But on the inviting par-five 14th hole, entirely birdieable for the tournament’s driving-distance leader, he shockingly sliced his two-iron approach shot out of bounds, leading to a double-bogey.
Clarke, calm and steady all day, never faltered. He poured in a half-dozen knee-shaking five- to 10-foot putts on the day. Playing cautiously with a four-stroke lead, he bogeyed the final two holes to finish at five-under par and joyously claimed the prize.
In truth, this was as much a victory for the Royal St. George’s 7,211-yard layout as it was for Clarke, who became the oldest player to win a major championship since Ben Crenshaw at the 1995 Masters.
Through four days, the world’s best golfers were tormented by this wet and windswept course. Just six players shot under-par rounds on Sunday, while only four finished the championship better than par. The world’s top two players, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, didn’t even make the weekend.
The back-nine collapses by Johnson and Mickelson extinguished what had promised to be a resurgent day for U.S. golf. Heading into Sunday’s final round, 10 of the top 16 players on the leaderboard were from the U.S., but Clarke’s deserved triumph extended the country’s streak of major championships without success to six, the longest drought since John McDermott became the first American major winner in 1911.
Mickelson joined legions of golf fans in being sincerely happy, as long as he couldn’t win, about Clarke’s victory. Two years ago, Mickelson’s wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, both came down with breast cancer. Among the first people to call him when news hit was Clarke, whose own wife, Heather, died of cancer in 2006.
“He’s been through this and couldn’t have been a better person to talk to,” Mickelson said after his round. “We talked for a few hours a couple of times. He’s a tremendous person and a very good friend, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”