LA QUINTA, Calif. – In an era when athletes are doing greater things well past what had once been considered their competitive expiration date, Phil Mickelson keeps lofty company.
Lefty has won six of his 44 PGA Tour titles in his 40s, including last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at 48 years young, and had spent 1,353 weeks inside the top 50 in the world ranking before dropping outside that benchmark last fall.
Golfers obviously have a longer shelf life than athletes in other sports thanks to the Tour’s non-contact rules, but finding an appropriate comparison for what Mickelson has accomplished requires some cross-sport creativity. Tom Brady’s 15 seasons in the NFL and Vince Carter’s 22 seasons in the NBA are certainly age-defying standards, and when it comes to unparalleled consistency Mickelson is very much a part of that club.
Just three of the top 10 players in the world, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, were born when Mickelson played his first Tour event in 1988. Three years later, when he won his first Tour title as an amateur world No. 1 Brooks Koepka hadn’t celebrated his first birthday.
“If you’re going to look at tenure and average age and all of that and still being competitive at the highest levels, I would not be surprised if Phil wins five to 10 more times in his 50s,” Zach Johnson said. “It’s a fair comparison [to Brady] in the sense that Phil still has enough talent and still works hard enough both in the gym and on the golf course.”
Considering that Mickelson is less than a year removed from his last Tour victory, it’s not a stretch to imagine the game’s most entertaining southpaw continuing to be competitively relevant well into his golden years. But that ignores Mickelson’s current crossroads.
For the first time since 1994, he watched an American team from the outside, having failed to qualify for last year’s Presidents Cup, and he admitted Wednesday at The American Express that it was a “rough eight, nine months” after his victory last season at Pebble Beach.
Six months shy of his 50th birthday, sailing into a well-appointed sunset wouldn’t be considered the worst of options for a player who long ago landed himself a locker in the World Golf Hall of Fame, solidifying his status as one of the game’s all-time greats.
But that wouldn’t be Phil.
Going quietly really isn’t his thing, and through all the social-media nonsense there was a fire that was ignited late last year. Perhaps it was sitting on the couch watching the Presidents Cup, or maybe it was June’s milestone birthday looming; whatever the tonic, the results have been dramatic.
Via fasting, a new diet and an increased effort in the gym, Mickelson lost 15 pounds and returns this week for his 28th full season on Tour as healthy as he’s been in more than a decade.
“When I look back on some of the highlights of tournaments that I've won or played well in 15 years ago in my mid-30s, I mean, it's embarrassing the way I looked. I wasn't really accountable for my health,” Mickelson said. “Now that I've taken a much greater level of accountability, I feel a lot better than I did 15 years ago. There's no reason that would hold me back from being able to play and practice as hard as I can to play well out here.”
With history as the ultimate judge and jury, this isn’t the first time Mickelson has arrived for a new season looking and sounding refreshed and refocused. Some of those years followed the script, like in 2013 when he won his last major, and some didn't, like 2014 and ’15 when he failed to win or qualify for the Tour Championship.
Turning 50 is always a landmark event, and the crowds at Winged Foot, site of this year’s U.S. Open, where Lefty will celebrate his birthday, are sure to make it a memorable week. But if Mickelson’s theory that a healthy body and mind are the only thing standing between himself and continued success on Tour proves correct, the half century mark will simply be another number.
Asked repeatedly Wednesday his thoughts on playing the PGA Tour Champions, his answers were politely direct. “I haven't thought too much about it, and I won't until I see how the first six months of this year go,” he said.
While he’s undoubtedly entering a new stage in his career, as evidenced by his role of host at this week’s American Express event, it’s not the ceremonial cameos or the call of the over-50 circuit that drove him to extremes this off-season. For Mickelson the goals – qualifying for the Ryder Cup, playing his way back into the top 50 in the world, winning that elusive U.S. Open – haven’t changed; only the degree of difficulty has.
Perhaps it’s not a perfect comparison between Mickelson and Brady, considering one wears a helmet for a living and one battles hat head, but Lefty’s ability to defy the ravages of age is impressive regardless of sport.
“Everybody, including myself, Tiger, everybody, has had dips in their career, and it seems like Phil has never had one,” Paul Casey said. “He’s avoided slumps in form, survived technology changes, survived Tiger. It’s brilliant stuff.”
There is no shortage of accomplishments in Mickelson’s career, but it’s that ageless brilliance that makes this newest chapter so compelling.