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Hot start, cool finish

Before the start of the 140th Open Championship, Phil Mickelson said he was looking for a fresh start with golf's oldest major. That attitude proved helpful, as Mickelson tied for second -- his best Open finish.

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Phil Mickelson's tie for second at Royal St. George's marked by far his best finish in an Open Championship. (Getty Images)

By Tim Dahlberg, AP Sports Columnist

SANDWICH, England (AP) -- The smile remained fixed on Phil Mickelson's face long after the circumstances of the day should have wiped it off. Stayed there through a missed 2-footer and after the final iron shot he sent deep into the grandstands on the 18th hole when the Open Championship had already been all but decided.

That yet another major championship had slipped away didn't seem to matter. Or maybe it did, and this was Mickelson's way of dealing with the 2-footer that sealed his fate just like so many missed short putts from championships before.

"Just a stupid mistake," Mickelson said. "There was nothing to it."

If you had just tuned in as Mickelson walked off the 18th green, laughing with his caddie, you wouldn't have realized that for a time he had a very real chance to win his first Open. Wouldn't have guessed that at one point he had surged into a tie for the lead, only to let yet another one get away.

Wouldn't have known that it was all because his new attitude was just to have fun and let the putts fall where they may.

Sure, Darren Clarke was going to drink Guinness all night long from the claret jug. But Mickelson still had his memories, and he seemed determined to make sure they were good ones.

This is, after all, a guy who knows how to take defeat well.

"That was some of the most fun I've had competitively," Mickelson said. "It was really a fun start, and it was exciting."

Indeed it was, for as long as it lasted. They don't call him Phil the Thrill for nothing, and Mickelson even thrilled playing partner Anthony Kim by the way he played the front nine at Royal St. George's in typical English coastal weather that seemed to change with each passing hole.

Kim said he learned a lot about how to play golf just by tagging along. One thing he didn't learn, though, was how to close out a golf tournament.

That has been a problem for Mickelson for a long time now. It's made a career that might have been great merely pretty good.

A lot of close calls in major championships. Not nearly enough wins.

The pattern continued Sunday on the links off the English Channel, where Mickelson did well to make a contest of things when no one else seemed to want to challenge Clarke. A 20-footer on No. 6 got him close, and a long eagle putt on the next hole put Mickelson at 5-under for the day and suddenly in a tie for the lead.

Almost as quickly, though, he faded. And it began -- as almost all Mickelson meltdowns begin -- with a missed short putt.

This one came on No. 11 on a par putt so short it was shocking. Mickelson pushed it for bogey, the first of four he would make over six holes. By the time he hit an iron shot into the fifth row of the grandstands well right of the 18th green, it no longer mattered.

Mickelson would finish tied with Dustin Johnson, three shots back. Instead of getting his name on the Open trophy, he got it on a silver tray.

I'm certainly disappointed that I didn't come out on top," said Mickelson, veering off his fun theme for only a moment. "I felt like the claret jug was right there to be had."

About the only consolation to Mickelson is that he hadn't had that feeling at the British very often. His record here is his worst at any of the majors, with only two top 10s in 17 tries.

He's never won a British or a U.S. Open, though now he can add his second place finish to his five runner-ups in the other Open. Overall, Mickelson has 17 top-3 finishes in 76 major championships, with three Masters titles and one PGA Championship to show for it.

He didn't talk about all the close calls afterward, preferring instead to focus on what he said was a new attitude where he tries to be upbeat and have as much fun as possible on the golf course. He believes his game has suffered in recent years because he hasn't done that, though he's also had to deal with his wife, Amy, undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the same time.

Mickelson said earlier in the week he was hitting the ball better than he ever had before, and he lurked around par through the first three rounds. But while he's usually a focal point in big tournaments, no one paid him much attention until he came out and shot 30 on the front nine of a course that's hard to play even in the best conditions.

That he couldn't get it done was partly because he began pressing when he saw Clarke wasn't going to fade. While the birdies came easily early when the lead was far away, they were nowhere to be found when he started hunting for them later.

"I had to start trying to make birdies, and that's when I ended up making a couple bogeys," Mickelson said.

If Mickelson couldn't win, he was happy that Clarke could. Mickelson and his wife held hands in solidarity with Clarke at the 2006 Ryder Cup closing ceremony in Ireland after the death of his wife, Heather. And Clarke was one of the first to call Mickelson and talk about what to expect when Amy Mickelson was diagnosed with the disease, and the two continue to talk often.

Mickelson waited off the 18th green after signing his scorecard so he could congratulate his friend on his first major championship win.

This time, he had something to really smile about.