At 21 minutes past six on Thursday evening, Phil Mickelson was poised to etch his name into sporting folklore. The American had a 16ft putt at the 18th to become the first player to score 62 at a major championship.
He missed but the outcome, of a ball lipping out from the position where it appeared certain to drop, had to be seen to be believed. Even then, a gasping crowd scratched their heads. How cruel, how utterly and compellingly cruel.
“I played one of the best rounds of my life but I feel like crying,” Mickelson said. “All these highlights and I feel like crying. I don’t know how that putt stayed out. I want to shed a tear right now. That putt on 18 was an opportunity to do something historical. I knew it and with a foot to go I thought I had done it. I saw that ball rolling right in the centre. I went to go get it, I had that surge of adrenalin that I had just shot 62 and then I had the heartbreak that I didn’t and watched that ball lip out. It was ‘wow, that stings’. The opportunity to shoot 62 and be the first one to do it, I just don’t think that’s going to come around again. That’s why I walk away so disappointed.”
No one, other than the golfing gods, could provide the 2013 Open champion with a reasonable explanation. It felt like a dictionary definition of bittersweet for the tournament leader.
Mickelson said: “If I had just hit a weak flail-off, the putt never had a chance and I left it short, so be it. But this ball was hunting right in the centre and didn’t go. It was just heartbreaking.”
In terms of the Open picture, Mickelson had no cause to be upset. He produced the 28th major 63 and only the ninth in the Open; no player had returned that score when playing this tournament at Royal Troon. With 54 holes to play, Mickelson’s advantage is three from Martin Kaymer and Patrick Reed.
Only three of Mickelson’s 81 Open rounds have proved bogey-free, all of them coming at Troon. The latest was by virtue of respective halves of 32 and 31. “One of the biggest challenges is, when you shoot a round like this, expectations running through your head,” Mickelson said. “That’s the one thing that I’ll have to try to suppress and hold off. We’ll have three more rounds. We’ll have varying conditions tomorrow. It’s going to be very difficult.”
Ernie Els, who played alongside Mickelson, was understandably lavish with his praise. “The way he played out there today, it’s amazing he’s only won one Open,” the South African said. “It was beautifully played. He was in total control of the ball. It’s just a pity he didn’t manage that 62. I don’t know how that putt didn’t go in on 18, that would have been something. That was a great, great round.”
What Thursday gave, Friday will take away. A gloriously sunny day on the Ayrshire coast, the kind all the publicity campaigns in the world cannot buy, was more pertinent in this context for the lack of wind. It was mild in the morning but non-existent in the afternoon, when Mickelson took to the links.
We were to enjoy it, and Mickelson certainly did, while it lasted. Day two’s forecast is of the kind normally reserved for Glastonbury: persistent and heavy rain with ever-increasing gusts, potentially reaching 35mph later before close of play. As has become a Troon quirk of history, Americans – Kaymer, Soren Kjeldsen and Andy Sullivan aside – dominate the top of the leaderboard. It is to be inferred that situation may change when the weather does likewise.
“I think when you’re an American you feel more comfortable in America,” said Kaymer. “As a European, I love playing in Europe because every week is very different and I enjoy the different cultures. It took me 10 years to figure it out, to understand where is the best place for me to play my best golf.”
Dustin Johnson, who arrived here as the man in such wonderful form, was forced to reach for a second ball from the 1st tee after carving a drive right. The world No2 recovered from that opening bogey but only marginally in scoring 71. At eight shots adrift of the lead, Johnson already finds himself with considerable work to do. “You have to hole putts here,” he said. “I felt like I putted well but nothing went in.”
Jason Day’s start was surely more of a disappointment, owing to a 73. “If I’m patient and I just start hitting the correct shots and give myself the opportunities, I can get myself back in the tournament,” said an upbeat world No1.
Jordan Spieth starts the second round on even par, with Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler both on minus two. Danny Willett signed for 71 while Shane Lowry, surprisingly, slipped to a 78. These details were an elongated footnote. The day belonged to Mickelson, even in self-confessed agony. What a standard has been set.
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