This is what happens immediately after the greatest sporting triumphs: we smile at the new champion and ask – how does it feel? And quite often the victor is so overcome by scaling the very zenith of his sport that he has no words. This is not how it was in the winner’s press conference at The Open Championship 2013. Phil Mickelson was a visibly contented man, chatting away as he considered his win in technical detail – for all the world looking like a guy on his front porch shooting the breeze and chewing the cud with any passers-by who might want to join in the golf talk.
But it was not his words which said the most, or the smile he could not keep from his face. It was the way the fingers of his right hand remained around the base of the Claret Jug for the entire duration of the press conference. Not once did he loosen his touch, and with every few words his gaze would fall upon the famous trophy which now bears his own name. His grin became sheepishly wide when someone mentioned it.
“It feels pretty cool to have this in my grasp,” he said, and he made it clear that the Claret Jug has been the most difficult accomplishment of his career. Do not be deceived, then, by the half-dozen times he has been runner-up at the US Open, despite his use of the word “heartbreaking” to describe falling short for the sixth time on his 43rd birthday last month at Merion.
“If I am able to win the US Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that’s the sign of the complete, great player,” he mused, adding with a smile: “I’m a leg away, and it’s been a tough leg for me. Five players have done it, greats of the game, and you look at them with a different light. I’m hopeful I will win a US Open, although it has been elusive for me…” and then the key statement: “…Yet this Championship has been much harder for me to get.”
Listening to him talk about the path of his final day at Muirfield, a single word repeatedly drifted back to mind, one used by Amy Mickelson and Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay – “peaceful”. Both wife and caddie described how Mickelson set off for his fourth round in a state of what can only be called serenity. Watching him in his winner’s press conference, it was hard to recall the player who only on Thursday angrily advised others to “let go of their ego and set up the course the way the best players can win”. By Friday he knew the outburst had been a mistake, and intelligently made a point of saying publicly that he had been unfair. In what way intelligently? Because it freed his mind of any lingering junk of frustration which might have hindered his path to victory. Truly, on Sunday morning and on Sunday evening, there was something peaceful about him – and if that sounds like psychobabble, then so be it.
It is a rare privilege to witness another human being experiencing pure happiness, and in Mickelson it seemed to this observer to be combined with great peace. He was not dazed, or beyond words – far from it. He was not so overwhelmed by the scale of his achievement that he could not express it. He understood it perfectly, and was content. This, above all things, is the incalculable prize.