INVERNESS, Scotland — Phil Mickelson doffed his cap to an adoring and applauding crowd in the grandstands overlooking the 18th green at the Scottish Open, and walked to the side of the putting surface to hug his wife and three children.
It was a similar scene 20 minutes later – this time with Mickelson having seized his second chance to secure a first victory in Europe in 20 years.
Mickelson beat Branden Grace in a playoff Sunday after putting himself, his family and his growing legion of Scottish fans through a tense finale on a wild final day on the Castle Stuart links.
“Nobody likes a movie that is predictable,” said Mickelson, who appears to be as popular in the Highlands as he is back in California. “You always want to have a little bit of suspense.”
After overcoming a terrible start to his last round and wiping out a five-shot deficit to overnight leader Henrik Stenson, Mickelson only needed two putts for par on the 72nd hole to complete the perfect preparation for next week’s British Open at Muirfield.
From the fringe, 15 feet out, his putt raced past the hole and his return effort from 5 feet clipped the edge of the cup and stayed out. That meant a new duel with Grace, who shot a 69 like Mickelson in the final round to finish at 17-under 271.
Before heading back up the par-5 18th, Lefty embraced his family, who had been waiting nearby hoping to celebrate with him.
“I was just getting a little luck from them. And refocusing after making a mistake like that,” Mickelson said.
It was skill rather than luck that eventually decided things in his favor.
With Grace landing his third shot in the playoff 25 feet away, Mickelson seized his chance by producing a pitch from 45 yards with a 64-degree wedge that spanned back to within a foot of the pin.
After days of links-style bump and runs, it was the kind of chip shot he produces regularly on the PGA Tour that sealed the win.
After Mickelson tapped in, his South African opponent’s putt slid by and the celebrations could really begin for the Mickelson clan.
“I almost let it slip away, but to come out on top feels terrific,” said Mickelson, who will tee off at Muirfield next week as No. 5 in the world and $740,000 richer.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to get ready for a major championship or an Open championship than playing the week before, playing well the week before and getting into contention. And coming out on top just gives me more confidence.”
This was his 48th professional victory worldwide, four of which have come in the majors. However, he has never raised the claret jug.
Mickelson and Grace finished on 17-under 271 after overhauling Stenson, who bogeyed three of his last six holes for a tie for third with unheralded Dane J.B. Hansen on 15 under.
Rebounding well from his near miss at last month’s U.S. Open and then his missed cut at the Greenbrier Classic last week, Mickelson had to dig deep to earn his first win on European soil since capturing the Tournoi Perrier Paris on the European Challenge Tour in 1993.
When he drove into the rough on the first hole, topped his second shot and then three-putted, he dropped four strokes behind Stenson, who started in a manner befitting his nickname “The Iceman” in the toughest conditions of the week.
After three calm and sunny days, the wind picked up off the Moray Firth coastline and turned a beautiful course into a beast. Only five players shot lower than 70 on Sunday.
Mickelson was in more trouble when his chip from just off the third green came up short and rolled back down the hill to his feet. He was then five shots off the leader.
“In conditions like these, there are going to be mistakes,” Mickelson said. “There isn’t a perfect round in these conditions.”
Urged on by a Scottish crowd that has really taken to the American – a long-time supporter of this tournament and a lover of Scotland and its courses – he birdied the next three holes and then picked up shots at Nos. 11, 12, 14 and 16 to take the sole lead, after briefly sharing it with Stenson and Hansen.
With the two Scandinavians dropping shots coming home, Grace became Mickelson’s closest challenger and his illustrious rival handed him a reprieve to take the event beyond 72 holes.
“I was so mad at myself after mentally losing my focus,” Mickelson said.
They were forced to wait to tee off again with organizers having removed the tee markers on the 18th, clearly confident Mickelson would finish the job the first time around.
Mickelson held his nerve in the playoff, though, with his approach shot bringing roars of approval from fans.
“This tournament, it’s special to me … to play well at the Home of Golf really means a lot to me,” he said.
Hansen, who had missed the cut in 12 of his 17 previous tournaments in his rookie season, had threatened to produce one of the most remarkable comeback wins.
He found the bushes twice on the second fairway – forcing him to take two penalty drops – and then chipped short of the green with his sixth to wind up with a quadruple-bogey nine.
No one has ever won on the European Tour after making that score in his final round and he couldn’t alter that stat, despite reeling off seven birdies on his next eight holes to briefly take the lead.
Like Stenson, he faded away in the home stretch.
DIVOTS: Martin Laird shot 68 for the lowest round of the day, finishing in a tie for fifth and as the highest-placed Scot. … Mickelson’s win allowed Steve Stallings of the United States to get into the British Open as an alternate.