Tiger Woods was PGA Tour player of the year, Adam Scott was global golfer of the year and Henrik Stenson was the champion of the year on two tours. Phil Mickelson, however, was the story of the year in 2013.
From his sixth heart-breaking runner-up finish in the U.S. Open at Merion to his incredible final-round charge to the British Open Championship at Muirfield, it was classic Phil.
“For me, personally, the British Open is the greatest accomplishment I could ever get in my career because of the shots that I had to learn and the challenge that it created for me over the course of my career,” Mickelson said in the aftermath of his closing 66 at Muirfield that left the rest of the field in his wake. “It was so difficult for me to play my best golf in the British Open under those conditions ... to win that is the greatest accomplishment for me in my career.”
The victory in Scotland gave Mickelson the third and most unlikely leg of his quest to become the sixth golfer to win the “Career Slam.” It only amplified his frustration at the U.S. Open, where last June he yielded a 54-hole lead to Justin Rose and finished second in his national championship for a record sixth time.
It was an impressive turnaround that separated his major season from the others.
“In a matter of a month to turn it around, it really feels amazing,” Mickelson said. “I thought that it could go either way. You have to be resilient in this game, because losing is such a big part of it. And after losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south, where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back.
“But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career and I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I worked a little bit harder. And in a matter of a month I’m able to change entirely the way I feel.”
The career slam is so at the forefront for Mickelson that at his first news conference of 2014 he was asked about this year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where in 1999 he earned his first runner-up finish, to Payne Stewart. “June is a little bit far away,” Mickelson answered.
For all his desire to win the U.S. Open, Mickelson isn’t looking past the Masters.
“I would love to win the Masters a fourth time every bit as much as I would love to win the U.S. Open a first time,” he said. “The Masters is really special.”
His longtime caddie and friend, Jim “Bones” Mackay, laughed at the thought of Mickelson looking ahead.
“When you talk about things that could never, ever, ever happen in life, one of them is Phil Mickelson looking past the Masters. There’s as good a chance of that happening as the Chargers being in the Super Bowl and him deciding not to watch.”
Mickelson’s priority has been getting his game in order for Augusta. He tweaked his early-season schedule – dropping events where he’s won such as Riviera and Bay Hill and adding stops such as PGA National – and his results were inconsistent.
“I’m still a little rusty,” he said at Doral. “I have not been mentally that sharp, and so to play better each day has been good for me ... But with Augusta right around the corner, it’s time to get going.
“My game is starting to feel better, even though my results this year haven’t shown it. But I feel close, and so I’m not overly concerned.”
Mickelson withdrew from the Valero Texas Open two weeks before the Masters because of a pulled muscle he suffered in the third round.
“My back’s feeling great, my body’s been feeling great,” Mickelson said in a statement released by the PGA Tour. “I pulled a muscle on my downswing trying to hit the ball hard on the second hole. It just killed and it wouldn’t subside for 10 or 12 seconds.”
If there is a place Mickelson can show up at less than his best and still be a factor, it’s Augusta National. At age 43 and 10 years removed from his breakthrough major triumph in the 2004 Masters, Mickelson remains on the short list of favorites.
“I’m not sure at what point it will change, but that golf course is just tailor-made for the way I like to play,” he said. “Short game, such a big factor. The way I know the greens. It’s so critical to know the intricacies and nuances, which I’ve learned over the years. I don’t know at what point I won’t be feeling as though I have a great chance to win, but certainly right now I feel I do.”
That’s a feeling he never had at the British Open, which made his win last year all the more rewarding.
“I don’t know how many times in the previous 10 or 12 years leading up to that (2004 Masters) I finished in the top 10, had opportunities to win and whatnot, so I knew when I showed up at Augusta I was going to have a chance to win.
“But I didn’t have that same feeling, obviously, at the British Open. I had very erratic performances. I had two times I finished in the top three, coming close, finishing second and third in ’11 and ’04.”
After the Masters, Mickelson will set his sights on that elusive U.S. Open trophy to join his green jackets, claret jug and Wanamaker Trophy. It’s a club whose only members are Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
“I think that if I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that’s the sign of the complete great player,” Mickelson said. “And I’m a leg away. And it’s been a tough leg for me. But I think that’s the sign. I think there’s five players that have done that. And those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light.”