Somebody up there—or perhaps a resident of a slightly warmer locale down south—doesn’t want anybody messing with major championship history.
Maybe it’s the apparition of Old Tom Morris or the specter of legendary Bobby Jones. Otherwise, all the more plausible explanations have run thin.
Over and over, superstars seeking to rewrite the single-round Grand Slam scoring record have been inexplicably turned away in the cruelest imaginable fashion, by the last blade of grass or the smallest possible dimple, at the game’s four showcase events.
This time, Phil Mickelson walked off the 18th green at Royal Troon Golf Club on Thursday with the palm print of some ghost on his cheek after a 16-foot putt to set a major championship record 62 inexplicably lipped out of the hole at the 145th Open Championship.
It’s enough to make a guy believe in golf gods.
"I didn't," Mickelson said. "But I do now."
Playing like a man two decades younger than his actual age of 46, the five-time major winner recorded eight birdies and lashed his approach on the last hole into the middle of the green, leaving five strides between Mickelson and the lowest score in the majors annals. This time, the American—who hasn’t won since his Open victory at Muirfield three years ago—watched in agony as his seemingly perfect putt rolled dead at the hole, then spun out.
As the putt rimmed out, he leaned back in exasperation, put his palm over his mouth and mouthed the words, "Oh my God."
The gods being the theme of the moment, really.
On the cusp of a magical moment that would transcend decades, yet another superstar had been rejected again. Mickelson finished with a scintillating eight-under 63, which was good enough for a three-stroke lead, but it felt like he’d been hosed by the darned deities.
It represented the 28th time somebody had posted a 63 at one of the majors and the third time a player had experienced a lip-out on the 18th with the record on the line. Former world No. 1s Tiger Woods (2007 PGA Championship) and Nick Price (1986 Masters) also watched in shock as attempts to shoot 62 curled out of the cup on the final green.
Moments after Mickelson signed his card, he watched a video replay of his eight birdies, which provided small consolation.
"We saw all these highlights," he told the Golf Channel, "but I feel like crying."
Mickelson not only embraced history, he kissed it and then was turned away at the boudoir door. As the putt failed to fall, caddie Jim Mackay theatrically fell over backward on the green in surprise.
The most mercurial player on the planet, Mickelson played a smart, tactical round as the birdie total mounted.
Even as the adrenaline began to get the better of him, reason eventually ruled the day. For instance, Mickelson wanted to hit a driver off the 18th tee, but Mackay literally took it out of his hands and substituted a 3-wood.
Mickelson’s tee shot hopped over a pot bunker, came to rest in the light left rough and left him 179 yards to the hole. As he birdied Nos. 16 and 17 to threaten the record, then hit a solid approach into the last green, the roars of the typically reserved Scottish crowd could be heard by fans and players all over the course.
There were a few more guys in this week’s field who were watching from their hotel rooms, too, like former No. 1 Luke Donald.
Mickelson, a student of the game’s history, knew exactly what was at stake, too.
“That putt on 18 was an opportunity to do something historical," Mickelson said. "I knew it, and with a foot to go, I thought I had done it. I saw that ball rolling right in the center."
He even took a half-step toward the hole.
"I went to go get it, I had that surge of adrenaline that I had just shot 62, and then I had the heartbreak that I didn't and watched that ball lip out," he said.
Mickelson suggested that it would have been easier to digest if he’d whiffed the attempt completely or hit a poor approach shot.
"At least I could have hit a big flail and not have a chance," he told the Golf Channel’s Steve Sands. "But that ball was right in the center. That was heartbreaking."
Ernie Els, a former Open Championship winner himself, was in Mickelson’s threesome on Thursday as the fireworks show began. The South African graciously putted out on the final green so that his playing partner could have the spotlight and relish another shot at history.
As Els noted, Mickelson missed the putt, but he still leads the world’s oldest major by an impressive three shots.
"You know, it was beautiful," Els said of Mickelson’s day. "He managed himself so beautifully, you know. The way he played out there today, it's amazing he's only won one Open Championship.
"He was in total control of the ball. He just managed himself so well. Just a pity he didn't... I don't know how that putt didn't go in on 18. That would have been something. That was a great, great round."
Cue another round of ethereal conspiracy theories and ghost stories.
"Well, it's obvious right there, there's a curse, because that ball should have been in," Mickelson said, eliciting laughs. "If there wasn't a curse, that ball would have been in and I would have had that 62."