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When Nice Guys Finish First

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There isn’t much left in the sports world that can bring tears to my eyes — the downside of more than three decades of covering athletes for a living — but Phil Mickelson’s British Open win on Sunday at storied Muirfield did the trick.

Blame it on Jim “Bones” Mackay, who has been on Mickelson’s bag since 1992, and tearfully embraced him after his closing birdie putt on the 18th hole. It was the finishing touch on the finest round of golf I’d ever seen. Perseverance, determination, guts, loyalty and magic... that moment symbolized what we love about sports.

There isn’t much left in the sports world that can bring tears to my eyes ... but Phil Mickelson’s British Open win on Sunday at storied Muirfield did the trick.

Mickelson has been this generation’s Arnold Palmer: exciting, daring to the point of self-destruction, charismatic, fan-friendly, and flawed. Nicknamed Phil the Thrill, he is a riot of genius and inconsistency, some of his most memorable shots (six-iron off the pine straw at #13 at Augusta National) coming after some of his worse ones. Palmer played exactly the same style: bold, fearless, reckless and wild. Neither one was any good at throttling back. Both were irresistible to watch.

Would it be a train wreck, or a win? Palmer’s most famous collapse came in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco, when he gave up a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, eventually losing in a playoff to Billy Casper. But nearly as painful was his loss to Jack Nicklaus in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Nicklaus’ first professional win, when Palmer three-putted seven times in 72 holes on a course not far from where he grew up. The rookie Nicklaus only three-putted once.

Mickelson celebrates with his caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay. (Jon Super/AP)
Mickelson celebrates with his caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay. (Jon Super/AP)

Mickelson’s most famous collapse was also at a U.S. Open, in 2006 at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where he double-bogeyed the 18th hole to lose by one to Geoff Ogilvy. But nearly as painful was his second-place finish last month at the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, outside Philadelphia, where, after leading for three rounds, he took a mind-boggling 37 putts to lose to Justin Rose. It was a record sixth time Mickelson had finished second at a U.S. Open, which is now the only major championship he has not won.

Endearingly, Mickelson arrived late to Merion so he could attend his daughter's eighth grade graduation, where she was speaking. It wasn’t the first time he put his family ahead of his golf.  In 2009 he took time off from the Tour after both his wife, Amy, and then his mother, Mary, were diagnosed with breast cancer. (Both were successfully treated, and their cancers are in remission.)

Unfortunately, being a good father, a good role model, a good family man, and a good sport is of exactly no importance to a golf ball.

So there’s a lot to like about the man. He doesn’t curse on the course. He routinely stays around to sign autographs for fans. Like Palmer, he actually makes eye contact with spectators. And he’s an honest, if sometimes outspoken, interview. (Like the time he complained about paying too high taxes to the state of California — an eye-popping 13.3 percent for those making $1 million or more. He later apologized for the remark.)

Unfortunately, being a good father, a good role model, a good family man, and a good sport is of exactly no importance to a golf ball. It is a ball without conscience. And if there was one event for which Mickelson’s considerable golfing talents were thought to be mismatched, it was the British Open, where he had just two top-10 finishes in 21 tries.

His ball flight was deemed to be too high, with too much spin, for the howling winds of Scotland. He’d been working on that, on flighting his shots lower, but even after he won the Scottish Open a week before the Open at Muirfield, doubts lingered. Needing just a par to win that tourney outright, he’d three-putted the 72nd hole from just 15 feet. Typical Mickelson brain cramp. It was the sort of error that a Tiger Woods or a Nicklaus would never, ever have made. Phil the Thrill went on to birdie the first playoff hole spectacularly for the win, but the message remained: With this man, no lead is safe. The wheels can, at any time, fall off.

But neither is any deficit impossible to overcome. So going into Sunday, trailing Lee Westwood by five shots, trailing Woods, the best player of his generation, by three shots, and tied for ninth place, Mickelson started his charge. He had thought one-under par, maybe even par, might win the tournament, but when Mickelson fist-pumped his way through the fans to the 18th tee, he was already two-under and holding a two-shot lead, shooting by far the best round of the contenders. He’d had three improbable birdies in the last five holes. Still, the Twitter world didn’t believe. Wrote one golf scribe:

Such an awful memory… Winged Foot. But if it ever crossed Mickelson’s mind, he didn't acknowledge it. For this time his final drive (actually, three-wood) was perfect. Middle of the fairway. All he needed was a par to seal the deal, but his second shot through the gusting wind flirted dangerously with the short-side bunker on the 18th green, before settling 12 feet behind the hole. Even then, no one with a memory breathed easy. Tweeted the great golf writer, Dan Jenkins:

Don’t do what you did last week… don’t do the human thing… don’t ruin this masterwork.

Which is why, when Mickelson’s final birdie putt fell in the heart of the hole, completing his magical round of 66, and Bones, crying, hugged him gently, and Mickelson’s wife and daughters enveloped him in a group greenside hug — all of it so tender and genuine… including the enthusiastic response of the knowledgeable British crowd… the tears welled up in my own jaded, cynical eyes. He did it. He kept it together this time.

It’s why I keep watching, ever hopeful that sometimes the good guys do win.


This program aired on July 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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