TROON, SCOTLAND—At five feet away it appeared a new 18-hole scoring record for a major championship would come to past. Within a second — the ball dipped into the cup only to re-emerge finishing on the lip of the hole. For Phil Mickelson the 16-foot birdie try at the 18th hole during his first round in the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon made for a brilliant day of top tier shotmaking — eight birdies against no bogeys. The 63 that nearly was a 62.
Since 1973 when Johnny Miller fired a final round 63 to win the US Open at Oakmont — 26 other golfers have tied the 63 figure. Some have had good opportunities to reach 62 but none was able to do so. Jack 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 Tiger 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.
If the putt had indeed fallen Mickelson would have placed his name — alone — at the top of the heap for the best all-time round played in a major championship. No small feat by any means. Something neither Woods, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan nor Bobby Jones and countless others were ever able to do. Even still the idea that Mickelson — winless since claiming the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield — would be the man to set the pace was clearly not something any knowledgeable golf observer could have expected.
“The opportunity to shoot 62 and be the first one to do it, I just don’t think that’s going to come around again,” Mickelson said, “and that’s why I walk away so disappointed.” While Lefty may be “disappointed” his feat has propelled him to a three-shot cushion over American Patrick Reed and two-time major winner German Martin Kaymer. Scoring conditions were ideal for nearly all of the day with little real wind impacting play. As a consequence — 35 players broke 70. Those failing to take advantage of the ideal setting included US Open champion Dustin Johnson who bogied the opening hole eventually finishing at even par-71. Jordan Spieth also finished at 71. World number one Jason Day finished at two-over-par 73. Rory McIlroy was able to get to four-under-par but a double-bogey at the 13th followed by a bogey at the 14th derailed his momentum. Even though he would birdie the 15th to get back to two-under the Ulsterman once again let slip away a golden opportunity to make a clear statement about his intentions to win a second Claret Jug.
For the 46-year-old Mickelson the opening round at Troon demonstrated that Phil still has game to compete. The issue is whether he can go the distance for 72 holes. Earlier this year at the AT&T Invitational at Pebble Beach, Mickelson appeared destined to win his 43rd event on the PGA Tour and led by two going into the final round — his first final round lead since the 2013 US Open at Merion where he would eventually finish second for a record 6th time in the event. Just needing a five-foot putt to get into a playoff Mickelson missed and settled for solo second. In his last five starts on the PGA Tour Lefty’s best finish was a second at Memphis along with two missed cuts at The Players Championship and US Open.
Until his epic five shot come-from-behind win in 2013 at Muirfield with his tour de fore final round 66 — the relationship between Mickelson and The Open Championship was clearly an intersection of the odd couple. In 19 appearances before his win at Muirfield — Lefty had more missed cuts — four — then top ten finishes — two. The belief of many astute golf observers was that the unpredictable elements one normally sees with any Open were just not suited to Mickelson’s style of play which centers around a predominantly-based aerial game. Amazingly, Mickelson proved his detractors wrong in 2013 — after losing the US Open at Merion — he bounced back in a big time way — claiming both The Scottish Open and then The Open the following week. Mickelson himself admitted afterwards no win meant more to him than claiming the elusive Claret Jug at Muirfield. Indeed, Lefty’s sensational opening round now puts him into position for a second Open triumph and 6th career major victory.
Phil’s first round was well played from start to finish. Earning four birdies on the outward nine — including a kick-in birdie at the Postage Stamp 8th hole — Mickelson scored a 32. On the much tougher inner half of holes Phil was more than up to the task — if the final birdie putt at #18 had fallen — Mickelson would have concluded the round with a trio of birdies. Clearly, Mother Nature played a leading role as little real wind of consequence impacted play. The expected forecast is far different and it will be most interesting to see how Mickelson deals with the adverse conditions. As can happen with any superior round — following-up it with a quality round can be most daunting.
The 63 scoring mark is one of golf’s most notable achievements. Eight times previously the score had been shot in an Open Championship — the last coming in 2010 when McIlroy fired the score at The Old Course at St. Andrews. However, only five of the 27 previous players who shot 63 actually went on to win the event. That is the challenge Mickelson faces. The Open has 54 holes left. With swings in weather conditions no lead is ever safe. No one is more aware of this than Mickelson. Predicting what Mickelson will do is no less demanding than knowing how fickle weather conditions can be at The Open and most especially along the western coast of Scotland at Royal Troon.
Mickelson was quick to summarize his good fortune and know his sterling round is now part of the past — not the future. ”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.”
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.