If we needed more proof that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Phil Mickelson proved it to sports fans on Sunday by transforming ESPN’s coverage of the Open Championship into a Rorschach test of how we watch television. For an internet commentariat that went to bed confident that Lefty was out of contention at Royal Muirfield in this year’s Open Championship, Phil’s come-from-behind victory was a reminder that sports forever reserves the right to stab you in the decency and twist the knife; for Mickelson's Rick Reilly-an supporters, it was proof that, more than anyone else on the PGA tour, Phil can still make that ball dance.
His approach shot on 17, the one that won him the tournament, was a master-class shot, a testament to his occasional absurd greatness. He hit a fairway drive-and-run that rolled to the green, just missed the ensuing eagle putt, and tapped in for what would be a tournament-securing birdie. He still had the 72nd hole to play, but he avoided a Winged Foot-type disaster by playing a perfect approach on that hole as well, bouncing the shot off the outer ridge of the green, curling it to within 10 feet for a putt he would make. He missed the bunker, and assured disaster, by five feet, but it might as well have been 500. On Sunday, Mickelson played like the $48 million man that he is.
It was a jarring end to a tournament that, in the previous 24 hours had looked variously like Lee Westwood’s long-overdue coronation or Tiger Woods’ return to greatness, and as recently as the previous hour had looked like Adam Scott’s double-down on his Master’s title and exorcism of his 2012 Open failure. Instead, it was just Phil again, with the casual “fuck-you” excellence that drives his detractors insane. He knows he’s good: Just ask him.
The Open is the only major sporting event that can look like it’s being played at the end of the earth: Flat, brown and sparsely and rather quietly attended, the course pits players against erosion in a way the other three majors run from. The U.S. Open’s practiced grunge has nothing on its British counterpart. The Open is the apotheosis of minimalist golf, and Mickelson, a bear of a man with a set of silver spoons for irons, runs precisely counter to any idea of minimalist, or professional restraint. His results are spectacularly consistent, but his process isn’t: His unique hack-a-thon is good for a major almost exactly every two years, with a handful of close finishes that are usually labeled as failures.
This scans strange, given Mickelson's studious anti-swag, but he has something of a Kanye West persona: As American as an Escalade or a heart attack at age 55, Mickelson is going to go for it every time, which results as it must in the dizzying highs and widely ridiculed lows that both carry the marks of folly and genius in generous doses.
If Mickelson’s victory proves anything -- or anything not having to do with the Mickelson we've come to know -- it’s that we can disregard the idea of “clutch” play in golf the same way we do in baseball. It simply doesn’t exist in repeatable form except as a function of talent. After a Saturday round to put him in contention, Adam Scott sat for an interview with ESPN and was more or less coerced into saying that his Masters victory could help his mental strength on Sunday.
It didn’t, of course, at least not compared to Phil, just as Phil’s experience didn’t help him at Merion or Winged Foot. Sunday’s win wasn't “prologue.” It’s what happens when you’re awesome and consistent. Because golf is the maddening, impossible thing it is, you'll still lose most of the time, but winning a major once every two years will put you in the company of the all-time greats. It’s a volume business, and it's how Mickelson works.
Phil eventually goes for broke every time, knowing that there’s always another tournament ahead, and knowing how rare is the chance to grab the brass ring. It’s hard not to think that he’s getting the most out of his career. It’s just as hard to think he’ll win his third PGA Championship next month. If he could play like he did Sunday every weekend, he’d have a much bigger trophy case by now, with the tax bill to boot. Imagine that. Then we’d really hate him, even before he brought the tax thing up.