JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – It may not be as grim as the Open Championship stats, but Phil Mickelson doesn’t have the best record in a PGA Championship, either. Sure, he has won – in 2005 at Baltusrol to set up whispers of a “Mickelslam” before the U.S. Open at Winged Foot happened – but this championship is typically unkind to the four-time major winner.
Aside from his win six years ago, Mickelson has just two other top-three finishes in the year’s final major. He finished in solo third in 1994 when the PGA Championship was emerging from its dark era. The other top-three finish came here at Atlanta Athletic Club 10 years ago.
Mickelson finished a shot behind David Toms, who had the guts to lay up from the rough at the par-4 72nd hole with the championship on the line. Toms made the par from 12 feet to win his one and only major title.
The win by Toms was part of another era of mostly major parity. Barring consecutive Woods majors to begin 2002, there was not a repeat major winner from the U.S. Open in ’01 until Retief Goosen ended Mickelson’s first hope of a Grand Slam with a spectacular back nine of putting to win his second Open at Shinnecock.
In a time where a dozen different guys – including Mickelson – have won the last 12 major titles, it almost seems a fitting place for the left-hander to return in hopes of a second Wanamaker trophy.
Mickelson opened 10 years ago in uncharacteristic fashion. He positioned himself for his first major win with three straight rounds of 66. But the Mickelson that doesn’t win major championships reared his ugly face in the final round. Having nodded with Toms thanks to a chip-in at the par-3 15 hole – the same one that the eventual winner aced on Saturday – Mickelson took three putts to get down on the 16th green. In the process, Mickelson ceded the lead to Toms and cleared the stage for what might be the most memorable layup in major championship history.
In the 10 years that have passed, a lot of things have changed. Mickelson got his major and three more. Woods is no longer No. 1. He’s no longer in the top 10. As a husband, Mickelson has helped his wife battle breast cancer. A patient himself, Mickelson has had to learn to manage the effects of psoriatic arthritis. Perhaps above all, Lefty is now a 40-something. Actually, he’s 41.
That means the window is closing for Mickelson to produce another major championship win. He is a salmon fighting upstream against multiple forces.
Perhaps the strongest current is the wave of parity in the game that has made domination almost impossible. The world’s top two players have zero majors to their credit. In fact, Mickelson has double the number of majors among the remainder of the Official World Golf Ranking top-10 combined.
Mickelson is batting a lineup of top-rated players who are prolific at raking in money, but not raking in major trophies. They’re not his worry, though. The major champions these days seem to emerge from nowhere, unexpectedly, and blindside the golf world. Mickelson doesn’t need to be afraid of the names around him. He needs to be concerned about the players who can ride one hot week to golf immortality.
Then again, perhaps there is some solace for Mickelson in the last of the dozen to win majors. It might offer some hope that one for the thumb is in the offing for Mickelson. Darren Clarke, 42, rode his greatest week ever to a major championship title at Royal St. George’s. No one saw it coming but for maybe Clarke’s agent Chubby Chandler. At least if someone is going to win out of nowhere, it was a guy who has been gnawing at the bit for two decades.
What Clarke did, though, to win his Open Championship was to take the process of preparing for a major more seriously than he had at perhaps any time in his career. Recognizing the sands dropping in the hourglass, the Ulsterman made sure to do things the right way to give himself the best chance at success. Clearly, it worked.
Mickelson may have to hunker down in the same way that Clarke did – or, maybe more appropriately, how he did himself for Royal St. George’s. The Open joint runner-up produced his best finish in the game’s oldest major by trying to hit the reset button on his approach to the most unkind of the Big Four to him over the years. Deciding to try to embrace a style that clashed with him in the past, Mickelson found a way to thrive and give Clarke a serious run for his Guinness.
The same approach should apply this week. Mickelson typically plays his best golf in the first half of the major docket. He has won three Masters – an event that largely defines his year – and is a perennial favorite for the U.S. Open despite never winning it.
Then Mickelson enters a summer swoon, kind of like the stock market. For whatever reason, Mickelson simply does not fare as well in the hottest of the summer and beyond. Maybe it’s the California in the man, but humidity, heat and sweat are not in Mickelson’s bag. No wonder he won his lone PGA in New Jersey. Were it not for the FedEx Cup playoffs or the annual flag-waving team matches, Mickelson might well shut it down after this week.
Instead of winding it down this week, Mickelson needs to turn it up to 11 in a place where the mercury has an off-chance of reaching 100. Draw from something – the close call of ’01, the uplifting result at the Open Championship, whatever – and be inspired to play the kind of golf that can win a major for the thumb. It would pull him even with Seve Ballesteros and only further the legend of the left-hander.
Perhaps the best motivation is combining the two and listening to a whole lot of Foreigner to make it feel like the first time again for Phil Mickelson.