KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Your two primary protagonists with one lap remaining at the 103rd PGA Championship will cover the limits of the human condition – both mind and body.
For Phil Mickelson, his Sunday struggle will be to ward off the mental lapses that have made the last two years so forgettable, while Brooks Koepka’s cross will be a fragile right knee that’s made the last few months something he would rather forget.
Both will face a beast of a course and a new wind from the southwest that promises to create an entirely new set of challenges as well as a wonderfully compacted field that is always just one bad swing away from contention. But when Mickelson and Koepka tee off in the day’s final group at Kiawah Island the dichotomy of the struggle will be real.
Lefty will at least have a one-stroke cushion to start the day thanks to a 2-under 70 on Day 3 that should have, could have, been so much better.
For 48 holes Mickelson was virtually flawless. He ranked ninth in strokes gained: off the tee and 34th in strokes gained: around the green, a bizarre statistical anomaly that makes no sense. This is Lefty. This is the soon-to-be 51-year-old who is nearly 2 ½ years removed from his last PGA Tour victory and almost eight years separated from his last major triumph.
He birdied the second and third holes on Saturday, added two more at Nos. 6 and 7 and when he birdied the 10th hole to move to 10 under for the week, he was five shots clear of the field. That’s when reality set in. He pulled his tee shot at the 12th into an impossible lie and made his first bogey in 20 holes. A rope hook off the tee at No. 13 never even crossed the boundary of the water hazard – double bogey. It was, as Phil explained, an all-too-familiar lapse in concentration.
“It's just an example of losing the feel and the picture of the shot, and I get a little bit jumpy, a little bit fast from the top, when that happens I get narrow and I end up flipping it,” said Mickelson, who is vying to become the oldest player to win a major championship, a record currently held by Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA. “Those two swings were more a product of not staying or keeping the feel and the focus of the shot. And so that's just a small little thing that I need to iron out.”
Five shaky pars to finish his round bought him the lead but probably not a ton of confidence.
This is, after all, the same player who just a week ago needed a special invitation to play next month’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and when U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker was asked about Lefty’s chances of making the team at Whistling Straits, Stricker balked.
“Oh, geez, I don't know,” the captain said. “If he were to go on and win here and continue to play some great golf … but he hasn't played really all that well up to this point, spurts here and there.”
Even some of Phil’s contemporaries need to see it. Joel Dahmen, who two weeks ago “poked the bear” on social media when he was paired with Mickelson at the Wells Fargo Championship, was asked to assess Lefty’s chances at Kiawah Island.
“I'm rooting for him. It would be an incredible story,” Dahmen said early Saturday. “He's got as good a shot as anybody on the leaderboard. But given his last three or four years, whatever it's been, should I poke the bear and be like, he can read this? I would be surprised if he can keep it together for 36 holes out here.”
That’s not criticism. Nor is it disrespectful. It’s simply being honest.
And if Koepka is being honest, he would probably tell you something similar after a brutal rehab from knee surgery. The pain and discomfort at the Masters was obvious and although the progress has been just as obvious this week, there are always concerns. Asked on Saturday following his own 70 that left him alone in second if his issues this week have been more fatigue or pain related, he said, “both.”
Despite what he called the “worst putting round” of his career, Koepka is in a familiar place. Before he was sidelined with injuries the 31-year-old had emerged as his generation’s Grand Slam specialist with half of his Tour victories (four) coming in major championships. With a modicum of hope that his knee can withstand the rigors of 72 grueling holes, he’s also starting to sound like the “old” Brooks.
“The strength has increased. I don't know if it was just a little tired, but I've kind of toned back the workouts a little bit, especially this week, just because I know what I've got to do,” Koepka said. “You're walking on sand a little bit, playing a lot of golf. Just toned it back a hair but made sure I'm still doing the important things in the rehab.”
This is hardly a two-man race. Eleven players are within six strokes of the lead which, at the Ocean Course, could be one bad hole. Notably, there are Louis Oosthuizen alone in third place at 5 under par and Bryson DeChambeau at 2 under.
But while the other members of the cast cling to hope it’ll be the two protagonists who will be the main draw on Sunday. It’s Brooks vs. Phil. It’s one player locked in a mental struggle and another in a physical bout, both hoping for something special.