There's a concept in golf known as "taking it on." A player willing to go after a shot at the defining moments in a tournament is "taking it on." He's not afraid to fail because the shot is fraught with problems, yet he tries it. By doing so, he's declaring that he is willing to fail, or succeed, under conditions of maximum exposure. Never is this more the case than at the defining moments in a major championship.
Phil Mickelson had driven into the heart of the fairway on the par-five 17th hole in the last round of the Open Championship at the Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland. He'd holed critical birdie putts on the 13th and 14th holes, and was right there for the championship although he had started the last round five shots behind Lee Westwood. Bobby Jones, the winner of 13 majors, once wrote that destiny seems to take a hand down the stretch in majors. Was destiny breaking Mickelson's way as he went after his first win in the Open Championship?
Now was the time to take on his next shot. Now was the time to seize the moment, which would either lead to his capturing the Open and the claret jug, or send him down fighting and hurting. He had taken on shots before at major moments in major championships, and not always successfully. What would he do now from the fairway on the 17th? He was 302 yards from the hole. Deep pot bunkers—are there any other kind?—were there to swallow any golf ball hit slightly awry.
Mickelson had taken on a shot on the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He needed to par the hole to win. Mickelson had been driving wildly much of the last round, but he had escaped well enough frequently enough to hold the lead. Par to win his country's national championship: That's all he needed.
All. The task is much more difficult than the one word and the context imply.
Mickelson's drive sailed left into the trees and bounced off a hospitality tent. He wanted to reach the green. He wasn't about to pitch out to the fairway and try to get up and down from there for par. He took on the shot off a beaten-down path in the trees and his ball hit a tree and came back towards him. He then hit his next shot over the trees, but the ball plugged into a greenside bunker. Mickelson couldn't get it up and down and double-bogied the final hole.
Geoff Ogilvy had parred the last four holes and he won. Ogilvy did what he had to do. He gave himself a chance and Mickelson, in taking on the shot from the trees after his wayward drive, made it possible for Ogilvy to win.
"I am such an idiot," Mickelson said after he bungled the last hole. Maybe yes, maybe no. He takes on shots and it doesn't always work out. He says he learns from the experiences, and uses his disappointments and mistakes as motivation.
Nearly four years later, Mickelson came to the par-five 13th at the Masters in the final round. He held a two-shot lead and had hit his tee shot into the trees on the right. His ball was sitting on pine needles. Trees intervened between Mickelson and the green, which sits on the other side of Rae's Creek. Would Mickelson lay up? He had that two-shot lead, after all.
Mickelson saw an opening between trees just in front of him. A golf ball could fit through. Sure it could. He took on the shot with a six-iron and his ball carried the stream and finished three feet from the hole. He missed the eagle putt but he'd taken on the shot and hit the shot he saw and felt. Mickelson went on to win that Masters by three shots.
"It's really one of the few shots that only Phil could pull off," Westwood, who was playing with Mickelson that final round of the Masters, said.
Now it was three years and three months after that Masters. Mickelson had those 302 yards to the hole. Those nasty bunkers—proper bunkers, hazards, that is—were there to snare his ball if he didn't hit it properly. But he had his Callaway xHot 3Deep three-wood that he hit off the 17th tee—he wasn't carrying a driver and didn't need to. He loved the club, and felt he could do just about anything he wanted with it—especially when it came to hitting defining shots at defining moments.
Mickelson took on the shot and he took on the green and he hit the shot and he caught it flush and as the ball was in the air, he said, "Go baby, come on." The ball landed in the fairway and ran and ran and ran and finished on the green. Mickelson two-putted for birdie. He then birdied the last hole and won by three shots. He said he'd hit "two of the best three-woods" he had ever hit there on the 17th hole.
Mickelson's willingness to take on a shot makes him the most exciting player in the game. After he won the 2010 Masters, having taken on the shot on the 13th on Sunday, he was asked the difference between a great shot and a smart shot.
"I don't know," he answered. "I mean a great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don't have the guts to try it."
That has to be the most unusual definition of a smart shot any elite player has ever offered. It defines Mickelson, the Open Championship winner who has the guts to take on a shot, and to accept the consequences. On Sunday, the consequence was that he won his first Open Championship and fifth major.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein