GULLANE, Scotland -- At 43 and 20-odd years into a career, athletic legacies are normally fully formed, and appearances on the greatest stages seem fleeting, a memory of what once was.

But in the gray light Sunday evening, with a leader board above the grandstand that reflected some of the stoutest names in golf, Phil Mickelson watched a putt roll into the cup at Muirfield's 18th hole, thrust both arms skyward and held them there on his joyous walk to retrieve the ball.

Right then, in accomplishing something Mickelson thought unfathomable, the possibility jumped out. He won the British Open, a tournament he once found more perplexing than calculus.

Phil Mickelson of the United States holds up the Claret Jug trophy after winning the British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield, Scotland, Sunday July 21,
Phil Mickelson of the United States holds up the Claret Jug trophy after winning the British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield, Scotland, Sunday July 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell) (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

"I never knew if I would be able to win this tournament," he said later, greenside as he waited to collect the claret jug. "I always hoped and believed, but I never knew it -- until about an hour ago."

What Mickelson did Sunday in winning his first British Open was play what both he and caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay called the best of his career. But there is more to it than that, more than just a 5-under 66 that put him 3 under for the tournament -- three shots clear of the field -- and more, even, than birdieing four of the final six holes.

No, what Mickelson did at Muirfield rounded out his resume, adding a claret jug to his three Masters titles and lone PGA Championship. He's an oddity: a Hall of Famer who's still a work in progress.


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"He's stronger than he's ever been," said Mackay, the only caddie Mickelson has employed in a 21-year pro career. "He's fitter than he's ever been. He's hungrier than he's ever been."

Mickelson began the day five shots behind leader Lee Westwood, with eight players ahead of him. Throw a dart at that 54-hole leader board, and you would have come up with a worthy champion: Westwood, still on the eternal quest for his first major; Tiger Woods, desperately seeking to end a five-year majors drought; Adam Scott, who suffered through so much pain in last year's Open, only to win this year's Masters.

Westwood, the people's choice, held a three-shot lead as he played the par-3 seventh -- a lead over the early-charging Ian Poulter (who shot a closing 67), Henrik Stenson (the eventual runner-up with a final-round 70) -- and Mickelson, who was just making the turn.

Westwood, though, hit the stretch that derailed his chances -- pulling the wrong club at 7 and ending up in a front bunker, finding another bunker that led to his second straight bogey at 8, then finding the rough off the tee and managing just a par-5 on 9, Muirfield's lone undeniable birdie hole.

Puff, the lead was gone. Scott eventually got to 2 under and led alone, but for the second straight year, he made four straight bogeys on the Open's back nine and faded, a 75 that left him tied for third.

Woods was never a true factor, struggling to 74.

"It was frustrating," he said. "I played well."

After he hit a 5-iron into the 190-yard 13th, Mickelson faced 10 feet for birdie.

"It was a putt that was going to make the rest of the round go one way or another," he said, "because I just thought if I made it, it would give me some momentum."

With that, Mickelson was even for the tournament. Take, right there, his own innate sense of theater, mix in the frail nerves of the groups behind him, and the title was Mickelson's. He sealed it with a steely up-and-down at 16 and then two otherworldly strikes with his 3-wood -- one from the tee, the next into the green -- at the par-5 17th, leading to another birdie.

"That was when I realized that this is very much my championship, in my control," Mickelson said.

Now, he can move on from the devastation of a month ago, when he led the U.S. Open at Merion after 54 holes, only to place second for the sixth time.

"After losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south," he said. "I didn't want it to stop me from potential victories and some potential great play. And I'm glad I didn't."