Even though Phil Mickelson came up short we couldn’t take our eyes off him

Golf - British Open

Henrik Stenson clutched the Claret Jug but even then, bizarrely, it was Phil Mickelson, the old black-clad lefty, who dominated our attention.

Neither could the cameras bring themselves to leave him, for they love Mickelson as they once loved Humphrey Bogart – just don’t call him Bogey.

We love him for his expressions, of both joy and despair, his ambling gait, his courtesies and kindnesses. Most of all, we loves his golf. And the glum suspicion that we may never see him again in such a circumstance made this a poignant as well as a thrilling occasion.

This was an epic, gladiatorial confrontation, and it felt like a matchplay monster more than a strokeplay tournament. The rest of the field struggled to keep up then, appropriately, left the stage clear for the main event.

This was a face-off that will go down in Open history, golf folklore, and it was only at the 14th and 15th holes, as Stenson putted a straightforward one, right to left, and then a longer effort to move two shots ahead and within sight of his first major, that we started to perceive a winner.

Even then, at the 16th, Mickelson had the chance to make a 20-foot eagle, the sort he pulls off so often. But he failed by inches and both players made their birdies. There was no way back for Mickelson now against the nerveless Stenson. Two shots up, with two to play, it was finally all up for the older man.

Only in golf, surely, can you witness the climax of a great sporting event contested by a 46-year-old and a 40-year-old. No Rory or Dustin, Jordan or Jason, but two gnarled pros in a fierce argument for glory. But the great Arnold Palmer did not win a major after he was 34, and Tom Watson had his last great success at 33. Seve Ballesteros did not do it past 31. Tiger Woods, at 40, is no longer competing at this rarified level.

Maybe it’s a mileage thing. Mickelson did not win his first major until he was almost 34. There were even people who questioned his temperamental ability to do it at this level until he sank a 12-footer under pressure to pick up the 2004 Masters. This, however, was possibly the last chance he was going to get to win another one. Even the great Jack Nicklaus stopped winning the big ones at 46, after his victory in the 1986 Masters.

This is Mickelson’s 25th season of professional golf and even though he lost on Sunday we are entitled to call him a great player; with five majors he is level with Ballesteros and one behind Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino. That’s not bad company.

His fitness is not in question. As he said here earlier in the tournament he is in better shape now than when he was having his most successful period in the game, a decade ago, and hopes to play in his 11th Ryder Cup a little later in the year. But younger, bigger hitters have moved into the golf game.

So it is at the lower-yardage courses, such as Royal Troon, that he has his best chance, where he can parade his immense skills and not worry too much about the bludgeoning power of the young guns.

The only major he has not won is the US Open, and he missed the cut there this year. The chance may have gone. When he does retire he might contemplate becoming a salvage expert – not that he will need the money – for this is golf’s ultimate scrambler, a retriever of lost causes, a come-backer against heavy odds.

He often needs his irons and his excellent short game, for he can be unpredictable off the tee. The strength of his golf has always emerged as he has approached the green. We saw that as early as the second hole. It was only a par for Mickelson, but the way he chipped over the bunker towards a small patch of green and hit the pin was masterful. His drives, though, are a little more interesting.

No one does a better expression of impending doom than Mickelson when he has played an errant stroke. Some golfers manage to remain serene even when they have teed off in the direction of oblivion. But with Mickelson it’s a portrait of, “Oh my God, what have I done!!” Think of the final shots of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. We saw that face on the 7th, when his tee shot appeared to be heading straight for a gorse bush, only to go into the crowd to give him an easier option.

He has been working for days such as these since he started swinging a club at a mirror when he was only 18 months old; he tried to run away from home at the age of three when he was told he was not old enough to join his father for a weekend golf game.

In the first six holes on Sunday we had six birdies and an eagle between the two. They both shot four-under 32s in the front nine and, remarkably, the standard did not drop as both players refused to blink. At the end he must have wondered how he had failed to win, how he had shot 63, 69, 70 and 65 for a 17-under par 267 and still not won. In his final round there were four birdies and an eagle and no dropped shots, just a dropped Claret Jug.

As he plucked his ball out of the final hole with a closed-mouth smile, he touched the peak his cap once more to acknowledge cheering crowd. Then he did so again. Then he removed it all together and nodded in gratitude. Then he hugged and congratulated the remarkable Stenson.

As he left Royal Troon he took a long and lingering look. So did we.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Weaver at Royal Troon, for The Guardian on Sunday 17th July 2016 19.58 Europe/London

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