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Just when it's least expected, Phil Mickelson gives them what they want

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Masked up and muted for so long, they wouldn’t be silenced. Not now. Not for their favorite son.

It started with an emboldened few, then a dozen, then hundreds and eventually thousands. They slipped under the ropes and spilled out into the 18th fairway, overwhelming wide-eyed volunteers who were both ill-equipped and underprepared. Inundated amid the sea of spectators, a tanned Charleston County sheriff helplessly cried out, “They’re coming! I can’t stop them!”

And so in a scene scripted for Snapchat, thousands of maskless fans swallowed the final group of the PGA Championship, halting, if only temporarily, this unlikely march on history.

They roared.

They chanted.

They hoisted their $16 Michelob tallboys in jubilation.

It was a cathartic release 15 months in the making, a post-COVID celebration that could only have been reserved for one man: Philip Alfred Mickelson, now a history-making major champion.   

Mickelson creates history with peace and excellence

It was vintage Phil Mickelson. And it was a side of Phil we to which we're unaccustomed. And it added up to a history-making performance.

Thirty years after first splashing onto the scene, Lefty proved in the most improbable fashion that he can still summon the goods when it mattered most. Staring down the baddest man in golf, conquering one of the hardest courses on the planet and becoming the oldest major champion in the game’s long history, Mickelson displayed some vintage form and maintained focus just long enough to win this PGA Championship.

Already one of the top 15 players of all-time, Mickelson now belongs in even more exclusive company, joining Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino with six major titles. Listening to his gaudy list of accomplishments at his winner's news conference afterward, Mickelson wore a dazed expression. He struggled to contextualize the career-defining achievement.

“It’s certainly one of the moments that I’ll cherish my entire life,” he said.

Even for a superstar who has made a career out of doing the unthinkable, this one defied all reasonable explanation.

PGA Championship: Scores | Full coverage

A month shy of his 51st birthday, Mickelson hadn’t posted a top-10 in a major in five years. He hadn’t seriously challenged on the PGA Tour in nearly a year. Two weeks ago, he told his brother/caddie Tim that he was going to win soon, but, um, who seriously would have believed him? His neighbors in the Official World Golf Ranking were relative nobodies like Jason Scrivener and Laurie Canter. So far had he fallen, Mickelson recently swallowed his pride and accepted a special exemption into the U.S. Open – the tournament that has tormented him, run by the organization that has occasionally roiled him. Legends don’t like handouts.

But these days, Mickelson had become more of a sideshow than a serious threat. The dalliances with the Saudis, the calves and the coffee, the hellacious seeds and the activated thumbs – it all made for easy social-media fodder but lacked any substance. They seemed the hijinks of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, a fading Hall of Famer battling for relevance. Lest we forget, at this tournament a year ago, Mickelson spent an hour in the CBS Sports booth, seemingly auditioning for the lead-analyst role while dunking on incumbent Nick Faldo; even his agent confirmed it’d be a surprise if Mickelson didn’t don a headset in the next year or two.

After all, his stirring Open victory at Muirfield in 2013 was supposed to be the last gasp for this proud champion, a title he viewed as arguably his most impressive because of its unlikelihood. This week’s PGA at Kiawah Island provided a similarly far-fetched proposition: an aging warrior with no form and oftentimes no idea where his wayward shots were headed ... competing against the deepest major field of the year ... on a windswept course dubbed the hardest in the world. Fat chance. Except Mickelson never lost belief, even when virtually everyone else did outside of his wife, coach and caddie.

“It’s just in him,” Tim Mickelson said. “I think it’s in the best players in the world at all times. They all have that, and Phil has just carried that on for 35 years.”

Best of: Phil Mickelson through the years

A look back through the career of World Golf Hall of Fame member Phil Mickelson, who won his sixth major at the 2021 PGA Championship.

Think about that for a moment: Mickelson’s victories have spanned from the 1991 Northern Telecom Open – a tournament sponsored by a company that specialized in telephone switchboards – to a major that was broadcast partly on a streaming channel and during which he told a drone camera to kindly buzz off. The 30 years, four months and 10 days between victories is the longest in Tour history. Though he never reached world No. 1 or took the money title or captured a FedExCup, Mickelson is now tops in longevity.

“The love is there, and he still has the desire to go and chase,” Rickie Fowler said. “This is a pretty big deal.”

Sure, superstars in every sport are staying at the pinnacle of their sport for longer. Tom Brady and Serena Williams. LeBron James and Roger Federer. Golf has enjoyed a few golden oldies too, but Greg Norman and Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer all felt like glorious one-offs relying on grit and guile. Mickelson has decades of institutional knowledge too, but he remains competitive at this advanced age by adapting to the modern game.

The flabby Phil of 2006 never would have lasted this long. That’s why he shredded his body, developing a six-pack for the first time. That’s why he eliminated foods that left him achy and inflamed, fasting for 36 hours each week. That’s why he stayed hungry by challenging the young guns to money games.

“When he was 20 going to college, he never worked this hard,” said his former college coach-turned-longtime agent Steve Loy.

“He just loves golf,” Tim Mickelson said simply.

What kept Mickelson from challenging wasn’t so much a physical limitation but a mental hurdle. For the past few years he’s lamented focus issues that led to uncommitted swings and unforced errors. Recently he began training his brain through 45-hole practice days and longer meditation sessions – breakthroughs that left him encouraged about the future. “Just the ability to quiet my mind and get rid of all the exterior noise,” he said. “I don’t want to get all spiritual, but that’s been the biggest thing for me.”

Mickelson: 'I hit bombs' off the tee on Sunday

Mickelson: 'I hit bombs' off the tee on Sunday

On the course, he’s still able to keep up with players who are younger, faster, stronger. He still tees his driver to the moon. He chases speed at an age when conventional wisdom suggests he should finally modify his swashbuckling style. He continues to embrace science and technology; on the range Sunday he set up a launch monitor to chart every shot while his chief challenger, Brooks Koepka, 20 years younger, went old-school and relied merely on the sound of the strike.

It was the first time since 1981 that the final group featured two players with at least four majors, but Sunday still seemed an almighty mismatch. Koepka had vanquished nearly every headliner in golf over the past few years. Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy. Dustin Johnson. Surely he was salivating at the idea of squashing the sentimental storyline of Old Man Mickelson, too. But during a wild final round at Kiawah, it wasn’t the legendarily erratic Mickelson who carded the big number; it was Koepka, the bullet-hitting basher, who sprayed too many foul balls. On the back nine he never drew closer than two shots and spent most of the afternoon with cheers of “Phil!” ringing in his ears.

“I’m super happy for Phil,” Koepka said. “I hope I’m still playing at 50, but to be able to come out and compete and actually win, that’s a whole other thing. Kudos to him.”

Look closely, and there are unmistakable signs of aging. Mickelson’s hair has been various shades of brown. He reads his yardage book at such a distance that you half-expect him to break out his reading glasses. He might be the only person still wearing snakeskin. And yet, even as he crept past 50, he has always viewed his best golf as just one swing away. That he was approaching a turnaround. But here on Sunday night, with his face reddened from the sun and the four-hour battle, he conceded this could very likely be his last tournament win.

“If I’m being realistic ...” he said, only to add this caveat: “But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run. I don’t know. But the point is that there’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.”

“I think he’s going to win five more times, maybe 10,” Loy said. “You can’t tell him no. Every time I try to tell him, ‘Look, we are running out of time,’ he’s going: ‘I don’t want to hear it.’”

Nor should he, since all Mickelson heard Sunday were the familiar cheers:

“Let’s go, Phil!”

“We f-----g love you, Lefty!”

“Let’s see those calves!”

Mickelson popped a thumb and kept moving, at least until the very end, when he was swarmed by the crowd fueled by a year of pent-up energy. Amid the pandemonium it became clear that he was making little attempt to avoid the onslaught. He maintained his languid pace, just as he had all day.

Maybe he was soaking up the adulation. Perhaps he knew there was little stopping the revelers anyway. Whatever the case, he pressed ahead, wholly unbothered, perma-grin intact. He’d won again, as improbably as ever, and he wasn’t about to let the moment end.