GULLANE, Scotland – For Lefty, 43 is the new 33.
Stronger than ever and more technically sound, in body and mind, Phil Mickelson did what many believed he couldn’t do on Sunday at Muirfield – win an Open Championship to move within a U.S. Open title of the career Grand Slam.
While Mickelson’s British breakthrough may not exactly hold to predetermined scripts, he has tuned his competitive twilight years into something of a renaissance. The question is no longer, ‘What will Phil do next?’ so much as it is ‘What can’t Phil do?’
Since turning 40 in 2010 few, if any, players in the modern era have transformed themselves as thoroughly as Mickelson, adding five PGA Tour titles to his resume and two majors (2010 Masters and 2013 Open Championship).
Cradling the claret jug late Sunday at Muirfield following his final-round 66 for a three-stroke victory, it was hard to calculate how much ground the southpaw had covered, professionally and personally, since 2010.
On Aug. 10, 2010, Mickelson stunned a room full of reporters at the PGA Championship when he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects about one in 100 people.
“About eight weeks ago, about five days before the U.S. Open started, I woke up and I had some intense pain in some areas of my body, some joints and tendons and so forth; so much so that I couldn't walk,” he said at the time. “It progressively got worse.”
A year earlier, Mickelson’s wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer and some figured Lefty’s best years were behind him, the victim of poor health and redefined priorities.
But like he did in 2006 after the heartbreak at Winged Foot and last week following another disappointing finish in June at Merion, Mickelson rebounded. The reality is that Mickelson began working harder than ever in the days following his 40th birthday to refine his swing and his body.
“It’s unbelievable really,” said Butch Harmon, Mickelson’s swing coach. “When you think about what he’s been through. Think about the arthritis problems that he had. Think about the problems Amy has had. Think about what he’s been through in his game. He’s probably the most resilient player I’ve ever seen in my life.
“You knock the guy down, he just gets back up. He’s just a champion, always has been.”
Harmon is largely credited for dialing back Mickelson’s more aggressive tendencies, and when he arrived at Augusta National earlier this season with the Phrankenwood, a driver/fairway wood hybrid that took the place of his driver, Harmon considered it a seminal moment.
Mickelson’s penchant to over swing has historically been his competitive blind spot (see Foot, Winged, 2006), but with age, and technology, has come a new found appreciation for restraint.
“It takes away his desire to bomb it,” Harmon said. “Me and Bones (Mickelson’s caddie Jim Mackay) have been trying to dial him back for years.”
That Mickelson is in the best physical shape of his career has also eased Lefty into midlife. The psoriatic arthritis forced Mickelson to adjust his diet – which, he admits, was not always the healthiest – and intensify his workout regimen. Earlier this season at Doral, Lefty estimated he was dropping about a pound a month and had lost 25 pounds over the last two years.
“The amount of preparation he has put into every aspect of his game at this point in his career is phenomenal,” said Sean Cochran, Mickelson’s trainer. “Since 2010, it’s been a progression. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t work.”
In many ways, Mickelson’s midlife crisis was wanting to be better, and with assists from Harmon, Cochran, Dave Stockton Sr. (putting) and Dave Pelz (short game) he set out to not go quietly into middle-aged irrelevance.
“One thing about him is he’s one of those guys that if you stay the same you’re backing up,” Mackay said. “He really works hard to get better; he’s gotten better; he’s 43 years old and getting better.”
There is no question Mickelson remains hungry regardless of his Hall of Fame credentials, but it’s just as clear he does so on his own terms and with a clear agenda. Earlier this month when he missed the cut at The Greenbrier Classic armchair analyst figured he’d slipped into a post-U.S. Open malaise.
Merion, Mickelson’s sixth runner-up finish at his national championship, was seen by some as the ultimate professional haymaker, and his pedestrian record in the Open Championship – he had just one top-10 finish in his first 17 trips across the pond – suggested he was no closer to the claret jug.
But Mickelson arrived in the United Kingdom early to play the Scottish Open, which he won on a new, but authentic, links course at Castle Stuart. And on Sunday at Muirfield he played what many, including Mackay and Harmon, consider the greatest round of his career.
“He’s a resilient guy,” said Mackay, who has been with Mickelson since he turned pro more than two decades ago. “He looks forward; he works hard. How many people build a practice facility in their yard, post-40? He really, really wants it.”
For Lefty, the game isn’t about pay checks or even week-in and week-out performances, it’s about legacy. If he were to collect that elusive U.S. Open title he’d join an uber-exclusive list of just five players to claim the career Grand Slam.
“If I’m able to win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, I think that that’s a sign of the complete great player,” he said. “If I were able to ever win a U.S. Open, and I’m very hopeful that I will, but it has been elusive for me. And yet this championship has been much harder for me to get.”
With that he was off into the gloomy East Lothian night. There are still major mountains to be climbed.