GULLANE, Scotland – On the day after a British Open that will be talked about for years, it was time for Muirfield to return to normal. Workers dismantled the green seats in all the grandstands. Trucks carried out supplies from the tented village. The blue name plates of players were removed from the lockers.
Still towering over the 18th green was that enormous, glorious, yellow scoreboard with all the letters and numbers in place.
"Well done, Phil. See you at Royal Liverpool."
On the left side of the board were the names, numbers and memories of Muirfield. Phil Mickelson with a red "3" next to his name, the only player under par. Henrik Stenson. Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Adam Scott. Zach Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and – at the bottom – Tiger Woods.
Four players had a share of the lead on Sunday. Twice as many looked as though they might walk away with the claret jug. It might have been one of the best, deepest leaderboards in the final round of a major in 20 years. Last one: Inverness in the PGA Championship, when Paul Azinger beat Greg Norman in a playoff, and the contenders included Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh, Tom Watson, John Cook, Lanny Wadkins, and even a young Californian named Mickelson.
Muirfield has the greatest collection of winners of any major championship – only two of its 16 champions aren't in the Hall of Fame (one is Ted Ray, who should be). Every great course is due to have a dud for a major champion. But there was no way that was going to happen at Muirfield.
Of the nine players who had at least an outside chance on the back nine, it was a toss-up between Stenson and Hunter Mahan of those who had the least credentials. Stenson has won The Players Championship and a World Golf Championship. Mahan has two WGC titles and was playing in the final group at his second straight major.
That set the stage for Mickelson to play what he believes to be the best round of his career. By numbers alone, it was his lowest final round of a major. On a course that didn't yield a single bogey-free round all week, Mickelson only dropped a shot at the 10th hole. The scoring average for Sunday was just under 73.5. Mickelson shot 66, matching the lowest score of the tournament. It was the lowest final round ever at Muirfield, and the lowest by an Open champion since Justin Leonard shot 65 at Royal Troon in 1997.
The greatest final round in a major?
Just about anything will be tough to beat Jack Nicklaus with a 65 at the 1986 Masters when he won his sixth green jacket and 18th professional major at 46. Johnny Miller will tell you that his 63 at Oakmont in 1973 was pretty good. He is the only major champion with a 63 on Sunday. For pure theater, there was Tom Watson's 65 at Turnberry when he beat Nicklaus by one shot in the "Duel in the Sun."
What made this so compelling was Mickelson.
A four-time major champion, he had only contended twice in the British Open. Muirfield has a short history of players winning the claret jug with help from other's misfortunes. That's often true in majors to some degree, but not this one. Mickelson seized it with four birdies on the last six holes, and a momentum-saving par on the 16th when he used his 60-degree wedge for a shot so many others would have putted – a thin lie, up a steep slope to a green with a false front to 8 feet to set up a tough putt.
"I don't want anybody to hand it to me," Mickelson said. "I want to go out and get it. And today, I did."
Muirfield also provided another chance to handicap Woods and his pursuit of the record 18 majors by Nicklaus.
Woods is back to winning more than everyone else, but all he can say about the majors is that he's back to contending in them. He has left a mark in five of the last six majors – either a share of the 36-hole lead or close enough on Sunday to pay attention to that red shirt – but he has yet to be a serious contender. He says he has been in "probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance" since his last major in 2008.
That's a stretch. Contention is best defined as having a chance in the final hour. That hasn't been the case since his downfall. It would be foolish to dismiss his chances of at least catching Nicklaus, but this won't be easy. At this stage, the bigger threat to him is not how good he is, but how much better everyone else is.
Westwood doesn't feel as though he played badly, and while he closed with a 75, that was not a disgrace. Mahan also had 75 in the last group. Woods was in the group ahead and shot 74. This wasn't a meltdown like Scott's last year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, or Nick Watney and his 81 at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA Championship, or Dustin Johnson's 82 at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open.
This was more like a slow bleed. The bandage started to come undone on the seventh tee. There was the sound of a camera clicking on Westwood's 9-iron, perhaps from the gallery. Westwood only turned to glare after his ball came up short and headed into a pot bunker. It didn't seem to be that big of a deal, but his reaction was the first sign of frayed nerves. He was tentative on some birdie chances on the back nine.
Westwood made 12 birdies and an eagle going into the final round. He made one birdie on Sunday.
Of the top five players on the leaderboard, he was the only one without a birdie on the back nine. This would have to fall under the category of "missed opportunity" more than "blown opportunity." But at 40, those opportunities might not come along as often.
For Mickelson, who captured the third leg of the career Grand Slam, the U.S. Open can't get here soon enough.