INVERNESS, Scotland -- Much has been made about the fact the last two Open Champions –- Darren Clarke and Ernie Els –- have played the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart before the Open Championship. Let’s just give Phil Mickelson the old Claret Jug now, and take next week off.
Mickelson not only played Castle Stuart, he defeated South Africa’s Branden Grace in a playoff to record his first victory on British soil. Indeed, it is only his second victory in Europe following the Tournoi Perrier Paris on the European Challenge Tour in 1993.
The World No. 8 birdied the first hole of a sudden-death playoff after he and Grace had tied at 17 under. Mickelson actually had a chance to win in regulation, but three-putted from 18 feet, missing a six-footer for par to give Grace a chance.
“I was so mad at myself for mentally losing my focus that I came out on the playoff hole really focused,” Mickelson said. The second time around he hit a wedge to inches for a tap-in birdie and the title.
Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Denmark’s JB Hansen tied for third at 15 under.
After three days of balmy, benign weather, true links-like conditions arrived for the final round. The wind blew to put a little bit more challenge into the Castle Stuart layout.
Mickelson initially appeared ready to head to Muirfield and the Open Championship a disappointed man after he opened with a double-bogey six on the first hole to fall three shots behind overnight leader Stenson. However, the left-hander played the next 16 holes in 6 under before messing up 18.
“This is really cool. I’ve been coming here for many years and have had a few opportunities and let them slip away,” said Mickelson, who lost the 2007 Scottish Open at Loch Lomond in a playoff to France’s Gregory Havret.
The left-hander hasn’t really fared well in the Open Championship. He finished second to Darren Clarke two years ago and third place in 2004. Two top 10s in 19 appearances is a meager return for a player of his caliber, especially one with such a magical short game.
He feels winning at Castle Stuart might prove the difference.
“It really was valuable. Today was a great day, to have this type of wind. We had three days of benign weather but it had some teeth today. I’m anticipating this type of wind next week and if we do then this will be great preparation.”
Grace might hail from South Africa but he has the sort of game suited to the wind that turned up on the final day. His low-ball flight is ideal.
He envisioned an 18-under score winning and so was fortunate enough to get into a playoff. Although he was outclassed here, Grace won four times on last year’s European Tour. He’s the sort of dark horse that could do well at Muirfield.
Mickelson wasn’t the only player to bounce back from a bad start. Hansen began with a quadruple bogey at the par-5 second after needing two penalty drops, but then played the next eight holes in levels 3s. That performance saw him briefly hold the lead before he eventually faded and Mickelson stamped his authority.
Stenson was chasing his first win of the year during a spell that has seen him return to form. The overnight leader took a two-shot lead over Mickelson into the final round but faltered when it mattered most. He bogeyed three of his last six holes to fall out of contention.
So Mickelson finally conquers the United Kingdom on the wide-open fairways of Castle Stuart. It’s a different test from what lies in store at Muirfield this coming week. However, that won’t stop all and sundry claiming the left-hander is about to claim his first Open Championship.
He’s certainly on form. Whether he succeeds on a proper links is another story.