(AP) PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — His caddie loosened the flag from the 18th pin as a symbol of victory Sunday at The Players Championship, and Phil Mickelson added a personal touch. After playing one of his tidiest rounds on one of the most intimidating golf courses, Mickelson signed his name at the bottom of the note and handed it to his new swing coach, Butch Harmon. Arms around each other’s shoulders, they walked up the hill toward the sprawling clubhouse for the trophy presentation, another sign that Mickelson might be on the rise.
“What's most exciting is I feel like we're just getting started,” Mickelson said.
In his third week with a new coach and a new plan, Mickelson suddenly looks better than ever. He missed only four fairways and two greens, and had only one bogey when it no longer mattered. Mickelson closed with a 3-under 69 for a two-shot victory, adding a mini-major to his collection and renewed hope that even bigger trophies await.
“If I keep working at these things and keep progressing, I should be able to take on the ultimate tough challenge at Oakmont,” Mickelson said, already looking ahead to the U.S. Open next month.
This wasn’t Phil the Thrill.
Having built a two-shot lead heading to the frightening island green on the par-3 17th, he left the attacking to someone else.
Sean O’Hair paid dearly.
O’Hair matched Mickelson shot-for-shot along the back nine at the TPC Sawgrass, unable to convert birdie putts to close the gap. He felt he had no choice but to go after the pin on the 17th, and was shocked when his 9-iron sailed over the green.
“You’ve got to make something happen,” O'Hair said. “I didn’t bust my butt for four days to get second place. Obviously, I paid for it.”
Mickelson finished at 11-under 277 for a two-shot victory over Sergio Garcia, who closed with a 66 with four birdies on the last five holes. But he was only a ceremonial runner-up. The victim was O’Hair, the culprit that familiar and infamous island green.
He hit another ball in the water from the drop area and wound up with a quadruple-bogey 7, and his bogey on the 18th hole gave him a 76 and dropped him from second place to 11th place, the difference of $747,000.
“You can’t force anything on the 17 and 18, you just can’t,” O’Hair said. “I had to today. I didn't have a choice.”
Attribute that to Mickelson, who took one hole to erase a one-shot deficit, pulled ahead for good with a par on the 10th hole and didn't miss a fairway over the final five holes.
Mickelson moved up to No. 2 in the world with his second victory of the year, and the 31st of his career. He earned $1.62 million from the richest purse in golf ($9 million) and trails Tiger Woods by only $60,000 on the money list, and 98 points in the FedEx Cup.
Woods still has twice as many points in the world ranking and likely will stay there for the rest of this year. Mickelson now has a new strategy, a new coach, and renewed hope.
“You’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Harmon, who previously worked with Greg Norman and Woods when they rose to No. 1 in the world. “He’s going to get a lot better.”
Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal fired off a string of birdies for the third straight day and nearly got into the mix. His fourth straight birdie on No. 12 got him within three shots of the lead, but a bogey on No. 15 stalled his bid and he settled for a 67 to tie for third with Stewart Cink (66).
On this day, Woods finished before Mickelson and O’Hair sat down for lunch.
After going from bunker to water for a double bogey on the fourth hole, it looked as though Woods might go an entire week without shooting par or better, something he had only done in three majors. But four straight birdies around the turn and a 10-foot eagle on the 16th sent him to a 67 to finish at 288.
“I knew I could shoot a round in the 60s here if I’d just make a few putts, and I did today,” Woods said.
Eight players were within four shots of O’Hair at the start of the final round, and that number dwindled quickly when only three of those players — Mickelson, Jose Coceres and Carl Petterson — made a birdie through the first five holes.
Mickelson again met with Harmon for a two-hour session on the practice range some six hours before he teed off, and they worked again before he headed to the first tee.
“He’s got as much talent as anyone in the world, other than maybe Tiger,” Harmon said. “If we can get him to play out of the fairway, he can rival Tiger.”
Lefty looked irritated with his first drive, a low, sweeping fade that started out over the water before finding the fairway. But he wasted no time catching O’Hair.
Mickelson holed a 25-foot birdie putt at No. 1, and O’Hair stayed in the lead by making a 7-footer for par. O’Hair had to make a nervy 4-footer on the next hole to match birdies with Mickelson, and the kid followed with two bunker saves to stay atop the leaderboard.
The start of the back nine turned in Mickelson’s favor.
From a fairway bunker, O'Hair bounced his approach over the green and played a full flop that came out strong and went through the green into more rough. He chipped short and made his first bogey to fall one shot behind.
O’Hair appeared to have the advantage on the par-5 11th when Mickelson found the right rough and played a risky shot with a hybrid to the left portion of the fairway. O’Hair had a shot at the green, and his ball came up a yard short of perfect, instead dropping down the slope and into the bunker. It was a simple shot, but O’Hair caught it heavy and settled for par. Mickelson nearly holed his wedge and made a 4-footer for birdie, and suddenly the lead was two shots.
“I don’t think I lost it on 11,” O’Hair said. “I think I lost the momentum on 11.”
They traded pars the rest of the way, both missing a few good birdie chances on the 15th and 16th.
That gave Mickelson a two-shot cushion playing the island green, one of the few holes were he aims for the middle of the green. That’s where he hit it Sunday, leaving the risk — and penalty — to someone else.
The only excitement from Mickelson came on the 18th, when his 6-iron flirted with the banks of the lake.