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Mickelson's fade tempered by friend's win

On an exposed corner of Royal St. George's golf course, close by the English Channel, Phil Mickelson was in a place he'd never been Sunday afternoon.

He had a share of the final-round lead in the Open Championship as he leaned into his familiar crouch over a 10-foot birdie putt that would give him a 29 on the front side and a one-stroke lead in the major that has most mystified him. Through eight holes, Mickelson had been brilliant, the way the great ones sometimes are on a championship Sunday.

He looked like the old Mickelson, using his clubs like wands, crafting his own magic.

The Claret Jug, as elusive as recapturing a dream, was right there.

Watching Mickelson settle over the putt, a man in the gallery said, "It's great to finally see Phil at his best."

Then a sudden cold rain, whipped sideways by the relentless wind, began to fall.

And Mickelson began to melt.

He missed the birdie putt at the ninth and, an instant later, a roar erupted from behind a nearby dune, signaling Darren Clarke had taken control of the championship with an eagle at the short, par-5 seventh.

Mickelson would birdie the 10th, a counterpunch that kept him close, but then he missed a short one at the 11th, no more than 30 inches, and he, like the other U.S. challengers, was in retreat.

It ended with Mickelson shouting "Fore, right!" as his approach shot to the final green dive-bombed into the enormous greenside grandstand at the 18th. Mickelson briefly bowed his head but came up smiling again. All week he had tried to kill his Open hex with kindness and optimism, and it very nearly worked.

Ultimately, Clarke played the best in winning a championship that doubled as a lifetime achievement award for the man who carried Northern Ireland golf before Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.

He caught a couple of good breaks Sunday, two shots bouncing over snake-pit bunkers that could have changed the momentum, but Clarke also made a huge 12-foot par putt on the first hole that seemed to cement his nerves.

As Clarke played the final hole, Mickelson, who tied for second with his practice-round buddy Dustin Johnson, waited greenside to congratulate him.

When news broke about Mickelson's wife, Amy, being diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, Clarke was among the first people to call. He'd lost his wife, Heather, to the disease in 2006 and he talked Mickelson through his early emotions.

It was a gracious move by Mickelson, who chose not to wallow in his own disappointment.

He talked afterward about finding his old self recently, putting an element of joy back into his game that had gone missing while he coped with his wife and mother's cancer battles and his own diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis last year.

Nothing could be better than Mickelson being Mickelson again.

"I haven't been myself the last couple of years," he said, cracking the door on his psyche. "I feel I'm getting back to playing the way I can."

Sunday was filled with classic Mickelson, both the brilliant Phil and the frustrating Phil.

It's difficult to overstate how spectacular his 5-under-par, front-nine 30 was. The wind was wicked, wobbling balls at rest on the greens and bending flagsticks.

No other player shot better than 33 on the same side, and Mickelson's score included misses from inside 12 feet at Nos. 8 and 9.

"I didn't see a 28 out there," Steve Stricker, the top-ranked U.S. golfer, said.

The front-nine run included a 50-foot eagle putt at the seventh that had Mickelson punching the air, sending a roar across the adjacent sea. Because it was Mickelson, because it was the British Open, it felt bigger.

"It was one of those times where you're not thinking birdie and things were just happening," he said. "I was having a lot of fun, some of the most fun I've had."

The short miss at the 11th - "a stupid mistake," Mickelson said - stalled the run. Two days earlier, he had missed from 18 inches. He does that. Always has, it seems.

When a wind-blown 9-iron led to a bogey at the 13th, the Claret Jug was gone again. Mickelson tried to force the issue but that was impossible on such an unforgiving golf course.

He wound up three behind Clarke and tied for second with Johnson, his best finish in 19 Open starts.

It was another major - the sixth straight - that no American-born player could win. The good news is five of the top seven finishers were Americans.

Johnson, who keeps flirting with a big one, made a colossal mistake by hitting his second shot out of bounds at the par-5 14th. Rather than cut Clarke's lead to one with a birdie, Johnson's double-bogey allowed the engraver an early start on putting the new champion's name on the trophy.

Rickie Fowler didn't make a birdie Sunday. Lucas Glover shot 74. Anthony Kim didn't make it happen.

Northern Ireland has won three majors - by three different Ulstermen - since Mickelson captured the 2010 Masters. It was Mickelson who pushed the fight Sunday, a welcome sight regardless of how it ended.

Standing beside Clarke as the new champion waited to receive the Claret Jug early Sunday evening, Mickelson had an arm on his friend's shoulder.

And a smile on his face.