Troon, Scotland — Now, Phil Mickelson knows how Jack Nicklaus felt that day at Turnberry.
Sometimes, you’re just not good enough. Even when you play your best.
Mickelson turned in what would normally go down as one of the greatest closing rounds in major championship history — a bogey-free, 6-under 65 at Royal Troon.
Lefty was two shots better than anyone else in the field.
Except for one.
Henrik Stenson, in an epic match with Mickelson that rivaled the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977, made 10 birdies on the way to a 63 that gave the Swede the first major title of his career and the lowest score in the history of the major championships.
Mickelson could only shake his head as he pondered how Stenson snatched this one away.
“It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” Mickelson said, trying to figure out how a 17-under 267 finished three shots behind Stenson. “That’s probably why it’s disappointing in that I don’t have a point where I can look back and say, ‘I should have done that’ or ‘Had I only done this.’ I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major. Usually that’s good enough to do it. And I got beat. I got beat by 10 birdies.”
When the final group stepped to the first tee, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in three days. That was fitting, as it rekindled memories of a sun-splashed day 39 years ago at another course in the British Open rotation, the one 25 miles down the Scottish coastline.
In a shot-for-shot showdown between two of the game’s greatest players, Tom Watson’s 65 was just good enough to beat Nicklaus’ 66. The next-closest finisher was 10 strokes behind.
“It certainly crossed my mind a little bit out there today, that match when Jack and Tom went head to head there in ‘77,” Mickelson said. “I know that I wanted to be more of Tom in this case than Jack, but I understand how it feels. It’s bittersweet.”
This one followed much the same script. Stenson began the day with a one-stroke lead, a deficit Mickelson erased with a birdie at the very first hole. They went back and forth from there, pouring in birdie after birdie — and even an eagle from Lefty at No. 4.
Their games were so in sync that, at one hole, they had to consult on who was away. The margin never was more than a single stroke until the 15th hole. That’s where Stenson finally gained the upper hand, rolling in a 50-foot birdie putt from off the green.
Mickelson’s last gasp came at the par-5 16th, where a 30-foot eagle try brushed the left side of the cup and stopped, but didn’t drop in. Stenson made a matching birdie, pulling off a nifty up-and-down from the thick grass left of the green.
Stenson finished it off with another birdie at the final hole, giving him the lowest score in major championship history. The two players gave each other a hug, then walked off the green with their arms around each other’s shoulders, much as Nicklaus and Watson did on that day at Turnberry.
Mickelson gave Stenson’s wife, Emma, a peck on the cheek, before fading away to let the champion have his moment.
“It’s disappointing to come in second, but I’m happy for Henrik,” Mickelson said. “I’ve always thought that he is one of the best ball strikers in the game and that major championships are perfectly suited for him. I knew that he would ultimately come through and win. I’m happy that he did. I’m disappointed that it was at my expense.”
“You know, it’s not like I have decades left of opportunities to win majors, so each one means a lot to me,” Mickelson said. “I put in my best performance today. Played close to flawless golf and got beat.”
At least Lefty won’t have long to lament his 11th runner-up finish in a major, which is second only to Nicklaus — there’s that name again — with 19. The PGA Championship begins in less than two weeks at Baltusrol, where Mickelson won that title in 2005.
With his family watching, cancer survivor Matthew Southgate was in tears as he approached the 18th green at Royal Troon. A traumatic 12 months for the Englishman was ending on a high.
Southgate was about to complete a final round of 2-under 69 to secure a place in the top 15, a year to the week that he underwent surgery after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. At that point, he thought his golfing career was over.
“Words cannot describe how that felt walking down that last hole,” the 27-year-old Southgate said. “Sixty-nine is a hell of a score for me on a day which meant so much.”
Within weeks of the operation, Southgate was back playing — against his doctor’s advice — and initially using his girlfriend’s lighter clubs. He got through tour school to keep his place on the European Tour, had a fourth-place finish at the Irish Open in May for the biggest pay check of his career, and then qualified for the Open last month.
With a 1-under 283 total, he has shot lower than the likes of top-ranked Jason Day and Jordan Spieth at Royal Troon. It nearly earned him an exemption into next year’s British Open at Birkdale, but Southgate missed out by one stroke.
“It’s been a roller-coaster year for me,” said Southgate.
“I always had the belief inside I’d get over the health issues and be back in an Open Championship, but to do it within the year and to have my family here … it is a big achievement for me. If you had asked me last year, I’d have said it was possible for me to qualify. But to finish up there comfortably in the top 20, no one would have had a one-pound bet on that.”
Phil Mickelson has now finished runner-up in the majors 11 times. Only Jack Nicklaus, with 19, has more. Here are Mickelson’s second-place finishes in the majors:
1999 U.S. Open: Won by Payne Stewart
2001 PGA Championship: David Toms
2002 U.S. Open: Tiger Woods
2004 U.S. Open: Retief Goosen
2006 U.S. Open: Geoff Ogilvy
2009 U.S. Open: Lucas Glover
2011 British Open: Darren Clarke
2013 U.S. Open: Justin Rose
2014 PGA Championship: Rory McIlroy
2015 Masters: Jordan Spieth
2016 British Open: Henrik Stenson