TROON, Scotland – Phil Mickelson pointed his putter toward the hole and was ready to step right into major championship history Thursday in the British Open.
Instead, he endured another dose of heartache.
All because of a 63.
The 16-foot putt looked good until the last turn, catching the right side of the cup. The ball then rode the edge until it sat there on the other side of the hole. Mickelson plopped his hand on his forehead in disbelief. His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, toppled onto his back.
“I want to cry,” Mickelson said.
No tears were necessary at Royal Troon, not after a round 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. Over the last 43 years in the majors, there had been 27 rounds of 63. No one had shot 62.
Mickelson knew that. He also knew he most likely would never get a chance like this after his 6-iron settled 16 feet from the hole on No. 18.
“That putt on 18 was an opportunity to do something historical,” he said. “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 and watched that ball lip out.
“Wow, that stings.”
What helped ease the pain is that it was only Thursday. He has gone three years since his last victory, the British Open at Muirfield, where his 66 ranks among the great closing rounds in a major. Mickelson still considers it his best round.
He might not have if that 16-foot putt had dropped.
It was reminiscent of his putt that spun all the way around the cup in the Phoenix Open three years ago when he could have shot 59. That didn’t hurt as badly as this one because five players have shot 59 on the PGA Tour.
“This one’s going to stay with me for a while because of the historical element of the major championships,” he said. “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. And that’s why I walk away so disappointed.”
Even with such a close call, Mickelson is in good company.
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 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.