The rub on Phil Mickelson used to be that he couldn’t win the big one.
He was golf’s Dan Marino, a telegenic natural with all the tools who just couldn’t deliver on the biggest stages.
But since that snaking birdie on the last hole that snagged the 2004 Masters, the floodgates have opened for the big Californian.
Never more so than they did on a tense, dramatic Sunday by the Forth of Firth when Lefty blitzed the British Open field as only he can, making four birdies on his final six holes, to win his fifth, most unlikely and, he said, “most fulfilling” major.
When Mickelson left his family, wife Amy and three kids, Sunday morning at their rented home and said he was going to Muirfield to “get me a claret jug,” did any of them really believe it?
Could they have?
The Open Championship is the last major anyone would expect Mickelson to win, including perhaps Mickelson himself.
Pete Sampras was more likely to win at Roland Garros than Mickelson was of overcoming a lifetime of cultural biases to win golf’s oldest championship.
Mickelson’s a great, great golfer — few have ever possessed skills like him — but he’s from San Diego and plays golf like it: in the air.
Here they play along the ground and despite coming across the pond for 20 years, he’s never quite figured it out.
“It’s so different than what I grew up playing,” he said. “I always wondered if I would develop the skills needed to win this championship.”
Coming off his victory last weekend at the Scottish Open, on the Castle Stuart links, a confident Mickelson thought this could be his year.
And he was right. He shot what he called the round of his life — and one of the best closing rounds in majors history — to win this Open by three shots.
When his birdie putt dropped at the last to give him a 5-under-par 66 — matching the low round of the tournament — Mickelson pumped his fist and looked at his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
“I did it!” he exclaimed.
Mackay was so overcome by the occasion that he broke down in tears.
“When you work for a guy for 21 years and you watch him play the best round of golf he’s ever played, it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Pretty cool on many levels because Sunday’s romp also cements Mickelson’s legacy as one of golf’s greats.
He joins Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson with five majors and is one step away from joining golf’s Rushmore: those who have completed the career grand slam.
It is, ironically, given his six runner-up finishes — including the heartbreaking loss last month to Justin Rose — only the US Open that keeps Mickelson from joining the select group of career grand slam winners: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“If I’m able to win the US Open and complete the career grand slam, I think that that’s the sign of the complete great player,” he said. “And I’m a leg away. And it’s been a tough leg for me.
“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.”
It was special, too, for Mickelson to win this major after failing so spectacularly at Merion last month. He twice on the back nine in the final round made bogey from 121 yards, so it had to feel redemptive to win like this after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
“It’s a huge difference in emotions, as you can imagine,” he said.
“And being so down after the US Open, to come back and use it as motivation, to use it as a springboard, knowing that I’m playing well and to push me a little bit extra to work harder, to come out on top, in a matter of a month to turn it around, it really feels amazing.
“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 US 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 some potential great play. 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.”
Many players, from Zach Johnson to Fred Couples, congratulated Mickelson.
When the dust cleared, even Steve Williams, the crusty New Zealand caddie who doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with Mickelson, sought him out to shake his hand.
Williams and Mickelson had clashed when Williams worked for Woods, back when Mickelson was in Woods’ shadow.
But on the biggest stages, Mickelson doesn’t play second fiddle to him anymore.