British Open Winner 2013: Analyzing Evolution of Phil Mickelson's Game

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIJuly 22, 2013

GULLANE, SCOTLAND - JULY 21:  Phil Mickelson of the United States holds the Claret Jug as he answers questions after winning the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield on July 21, 2013 in Gullane, Scotland.  (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

It took Phil Mickelson two decades at the British Open to figure out how to capture the Claret Jug, but in his typical fashion, Mickelson thrilled with a scintillating five-under 66 to win by three strokes on Sunday.

His three-under-par total made Mickelson the only player in red figures for the Open Championship. It was a testament to the brilliance Mickelson has always possessed, and to how he evolved his game to adapt to links golf.

Mickelson himself wasn't sure whether he would ever be "equipped" or have the shots in his arsenal to ever win the British Open:

It makes sense, given that his previous efforts weren't exactly spectacular. Prior to his breakthrough triumph at Muirfield Golf Links in Gullane, Scotland, Mickelson owned just two Top 10 finishes in the event.

ESPN's Justin Ray outlined the historical context of Mickelson's previous struggles:

To Mickelson's credit, he showed the resolve of a steely veteran and hung tough all week despite the incredibly difficult conditions that Muirfield fostered due to sunny forecasts and dried-out terrain.

The 43-year-old has been exuding as much confidence as ever recently. Even after Mickelson won the Scottish Open in a playoff over Branden Grace, Golf Channel's Jason Sobel wasn't quite ready to jump on the bandwagon. That's since changed:

In fact, the entire perception of Mickelson as a golfer has changed. If he had found a way to win the U.S. Open one of the record six times he's finished runner-up, he'd have the career Grand Slam right now.

This year's U.S. Open was particularly heartbreaking. Despite holing out from the rough for eagle on the par-four 10th hole, he couldn't hole enough putts or hit the timely shots down the stretch to take home the trophy, instead settling for second yet again.

But instead of skulking off into the shadows in despair, Mickelson spun the outcome positively, realized how well he was playing and didn't want to let that get in the way of any possible success he could have for the remainder of 2013.

It's all come to a head over the past two weeks.

Mickelson explained that the links greens often more so than ball-striking were why he couldn't compete as well in the past in this style of golf. That was magnificently tailored to at Muirfield, especially in the final round, when he had just 26 putts.

The last of those strokes came on the 18th green, when Mickelson stuck it close and recorded his fourth birdie in six holes to close out his championship with an exclamation point:

Course management has often been a criticism for Mickelson, because he'll often try shots that most players couldn't imagine—much less attempt.

Firing at pins isn't always feasible in links golf, and even on short clubs, gauging the bounce on the hard ground can be difficult. Thus, it was clear Mickelson had to do some tweaking to become effective in that regard.

Distance control was not a problem for Mickelson at all, and as he said after the round, he didn't force the birdies he made on Nos. 13 and 14. He simply hit the ball in the proper spot, was in a position to hole out and executed.

That's quite a deviation from his normal "Phil the Thrill" tactics.

However, on the final two holes, with the Claret Jug hanging in the balance, it was time for that relentless attacker in Mickelson to come out again.

Mickelson crushed two courageous 3-woods on the par-five 17th, reaching the green in two shots to set up a two-putt, tap-in birdie to get to minus-two.

Had he pushed his second shot too far to the left, though, he would have found the thickest rough on the course about 30 yards short of the green, where he may not have had a shot and could have taken bogey easily.

With his victory far from assured after that massive risk paid off, instead of electing to play safe, he went for the jugular in rifling an approach to the closing hole right at the pin.

The stick was located only several paces from the greenside bunker on the left, and if Mickelson short-sided himself, even his short game mastery may not have been able to convert an up-and-down.

The ball skirted past the bunker by about a foot, spun right and settled comfortably close behind the hole.

Sager judgment allowed Mickelson to experience major glory he thought might never be feasible at the Open Championship.

What got him through the majority of the week was his newly disciplined management of taking what the course gave him; what elevated his epic final round to legendary status was precisely what makes him one of the game's best of all time.

Mickelson himself summed it up well on Sunday (h/t ESPN's Bob Harig), "I've always tried to go out and get it. I don't want anybody to hand it to me. I want to go out and get it. And today I did."

That's how Mickelson has always been as a person, and he won't change, but how he changed purely as a golfer is what allowed him to grip that Claret Jug.

Note: Stats and information were obtained from Mickelson's complete championship press conference is available on the official website, too.