By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
TROON, Scotland — Tiger Woods isn’t the only player chasing Jack Nicklaus in the majors.
So is Phil Mickelson.
Only one of them has been making progress over the last four years. That isn’t necessarily good news for Mickelson, but it should be.
Mickelson did everything right in the British Open, only to watch Henrik Stenson do just a little better.
They combined to deliver the greatest closing rounds by a final pairing in major championship history — 63 for Stenson, 65 for Mickelson, on a day when the average score was 72.8. They had a better-ball score of 59. They walked off the 18th green at Royal Troon with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and given the intensity of the battle, they might have been keeping each other from collapsing.
Stenson, the champion golfer of the year, received the silver claret jug.
Mickelson not only received a silver platter, he took over sole possession of second place on golf’s all-time list of runner-up finishes in the majors.
He’s No. 2 at being No. 2
The runner-up finish at Royal Troon was the 11th for Mickelson, one more than Arnold Palmer and still eight to go to catch Nicklaus.
No one talks much about that record because Nicklaus is identified more with his 18 majors. Woods reached 14 majors in 2008 and was ahead of the pace set by Nicklaus until a fourth knee surgery, three back surgeries and one fire hydrant got in the way.
Eight years later, Woods remains at 14 and hasn’t played in nearly a year.
Mickelson, who won his fifth major in the British Open at Muirfield three years ago, now has recorded a runner-up finish each of the last four years. Not even Nicklaus put together a streak of four straight years with the silver.
This is not meant to cheer up Mickelson.
He is 46, in his 25th year as a pro. He has been around long enough that losing stings, and it doesn’t always matter if it’s self-inflicted. Is it easier to stomach knowing he played bogey-free than if he couldn’t hit a par 3 with a pitching wedge?
It was the second time that Mickelson posted the lowest score in any major, only for someone else to go lower. That was David Toms at Atlanta Athletic Club, who holed a 10-foot par putt on the final hole to beat Mickelson by one. And it was Stenson at Royal Troon, making 10 birdies in a round of 63 that even Johnny Miller admired.
“I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about that,” Mickelson said. “I played what I feel was well enough to win this championship by a number of strokes, and yet I got beat by three strokes. You know, it’s not like I have decades left of opportunities to win majors, so each one means a lot to me.
“I put in my best performance today. Played close to flawless golf and was beat,” he said. “So it kind of goes both ways. I’m happy with the way I played, but even more disappointed that it wasn’t enough because you look back and say, ‘What do I need to do?’”
By now he should know the answer, because it has happened a lot.
Sure, Mickelson erred by trying to hit 3-iron around a tree at Winged Foot and making double bogey on the 18th hole in the 2006 U.S. Open. The soft bogeys he made on the 13th and 15th holes at Merion cost him a shot at the 2013 U.S. Open. One can find other mistakes, but with the exception of Royal Troon, even the winner doesn’t hit all the right shots.
What’s impressive about Mickelson is that seven of his 11 runner-up finishes in the majors were by two shots or fewer.
Nicklaus was a runner-up 19 times, but it’s not simple math to suggest he could have won 37 majors. In six of those, he finished three shots or more behind. The only time Mickelson was never a serious factor in the closing holes was when Jordan Spieth won by four shots at the Masters last year.
Toms and Payne Stewart made par putts on him at the last hole. Mickelson made double bogey from the bunker on the 17th at Shinnecock Hills. A bogey on the 16th hole cost him at Valhalla when Rory McIlroy won by one shot, and a bogey on the 17th hole at Bethpage Black left Mickelson one shot behind in the 2009 U.S. Open.
Should he have won more majors? Anyone, Woods included, can say that.
To be in this conversation, and to have more runner-up finishes in the majors except for Nicklaus, means something is going right at least most of the time. Mickelson has posted scores of 266, 267 and 269 in majors and lost them all. That might be really tough to take if not for the five majors he has won.
Mickelson doesn’t see his window closing all that quickly. He wouldn’t want Nicklaus’ other record, but it sure would be nice to be in a position to try. That means he has a chance at winning, and everyone should want that.