Updated at: 07/22/2013 11:35 AM
By TIM DAHLBERG
(AP) GULLANE, Scotland - The celebration started when Phil Mickelson rolled in his final birdie putt, with hands raised high in the air and a tearful caddie just waiting to be hugged. It quickly turned into a victory lap, even as the players he’d already beaten struggled to finish what was left of their disappointing day.
There were, of course, hugs for his picture perfect wife and his equally charming children _ and lots of them. Congratulations to accept from most anyone near the 18th green, and plenty of smiles for the thousands gathered in the grandstands.
Then, with even more time to kill before he was officially declared champion of the one tournament he feared he would never win, Mickelson did what only Mickelson would do _ he began signing autographs.
Hold onto them because they might be worth something someday. The guy with the goofy grin who once seemed destined never to win a major now seems intent on playing his way into golfing lore.
No, he’s not Tiger Woods. Never will be, though that’s not really such a bad thing.
But he did play one of the greatest rounds you’ll ever see Sunday under treacherous conditions in the final round of the British Open. And it may be time to stop thinking about him as a player who sometimes can’t think straight on the course and start the discussion about where he ranks among the greats of the game.
With five major championships now, he’s in the mix. Toss in one of those six U.S. Opens he came so agonizingly close to winning and he might even be there now.
Only five players have the career Grand Slam, and they have last names like Nicklaus, Woods and Hogan. If one day Mickelson joins them there, his legacy will be set.
"I think that if I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that’s the sign of the complete great player," Mickelson said. "I’m a leg away. And it’s been a tough leg for me."
If it’s any consolation, this one was always tough, too.
Mickelson took a long time to acclimate to golf across the pond, a long time to figure out that the grass that grows over here is different from the stuff that grows on the finely manicured country clubs back home. For years he tried to hit shots he had no business trying to hit, and for years he struggled to even get in contention in the oldest major of them all.
This wasn’t shaping up as the year he was going to figure it all out, either. Not after yet another heartbreaking loss at the U.S. Open at Merion, where he had a one-shot lead going into the final round only to kick it away with two bad wedges on the back nine.
"It could have easily gone south, where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back," Mickelson acknowledged. "But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career. And I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year and some potential great play. And in a matter of a month I’m able to change entirely the way I feel."
He may have also changed entirely the way some in golf feel about him. While fans love Mickelson for his smile, his easy way with autographs and his daredevil style, there’s always been a feeling he’s given away as many tournaments as he’s won. His career-defining moments all pretty much revolved around the Masters and before Sunday he didn’t have an Open to his name.
A round for the ages took care of that. On a breezy afternoon off the coast of Scotland, Lefty did what seemed impossible, making four birdies in the last six holes to run the table at Muirfield. He closed it out with two of the best 3-woods of his life back-to-back on the par-5 17th hole and an iron to No. 18 to set up his final birdie.
He went so low so fast that Adam Scott _ who had held the lead _ thought the scoreboard was playing tricks on him when he glanced up at it a few times on the back nine.
"Best round I’ve ever seen him play," said caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay, who was so caught up in the win he was crying on the 18th green.
That he played it at the age of 43 is a testament to Mickelson’s work ethic as well as his talent. He wants to win badly, and he’s willing to put the effort into it, even if some of his ideas about competing _ like playing the first round of the U.S. Open after flying overnight to get there so he could be at his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation _ are, in the world of golf, a bit unorthodox.
Mickelson didn’t win a major until he was 34, going 0-for-42 in them before breaking through at the Masters. While he probably won’t catch Woods and his 14 majors, Woods only leads him 6-5 in major titles over the last decade.
And while Woods is stuck on his number, Mickelson seems intent on adding to his haul.
"I joke around all the time," Mackay said, "when he’s 60 on the putting green at Augusta, he’s going to say, `I got a chance.’"
Hard to imagine, but there was a time this win would have been, too. Now, anything seems possible for Mickelson.
That should be reason to celebrate, too.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)