"I'm playing the best I've ever played," Phil Mickelson said after winning his first Claret Jug, and maybe that's true, maybe it was a back nine, or a weekend, or a season of especially inspired golf. But Mickelson's run—four birdies on the final six holes, as the rest of the leaderboard stumbled trying to keep his pace—isn't the anomaly it would have seemed years ago. It's just the kind of thing you'd expect from a man who's gradually taken his place as one of his generation's greats.
This didn't look likely 10 years ago, did it? A decade into his pro career, and Mickelson still hadn't won that first major, looked paralyzed (as did the rest of the tour) at the prospect of seeing his best days coincide with Tiger Woods's. Now? He's in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He's one of just 19 people to win five majors, and one of 14 to take three out of the four.
Mickelson started the day five back, four pairings ahead of the leaders. He could lose, but he couldn't collapse—perhaps just the way he likes it. His round itself was remarkable for its unremarkability: few wayward drives, no blown putts, no untraversable hazards. Meanwhile, Muirfield had its way with everyone else.
"I had a look at the leaderboard a couple of times but they didn't really seem to make so much sense," [Adam] Scott said. "I wasn't sure if they had it right; Phil kept moving up."
It can't be overemphasized how impressive Mickelson's final round was. Most comeback victories are either one player holding on as everyone else slips, or squeezing the most out of a course that's forgiving to all. But Mickelson charged as everyone else wiped out. It was, simply, dominance.
He would go on to win by three strokes, so as it turned out he made the Claret Jug his on 16, going up and down out of the swale to save par. But 17's the hole that'll be remembered—on a par-5 where practically no one was reaching the green in two, Mickelson found it with two consecutive wood shots, low and long and laser-guided.
"Those two 3-woods were the two best shots of the week, to get it on that green," Mickelson said. "As I was walking up to the green, that was when I realized that this is very much my championship in my control.
Another perfect approach on 18, and a 10-footer to seal the thing.
And now we think back on Mickelson's collapse at Merion, and his putting woes at Bethpage Black, and missing the fairway on 18 at Winged Foot, and three-putting at Shinnecock, and all the other U.S. Opens that have escaped him, denying him the career Grand Slam. But Phil Mickelson is playing the best golf of his life, and we find ourselves no longer thinking of those missed chances as regrets—only prologue.