MEXICO CITY – When Phil Mickelson finally trades his PGA Tour card for an AARP card, which at this rate will likely stretch well into his golden years, PGA Tour victory No. 43 will be greater than the sum of its parts.
At first blush, the frenzied shootout on Sunday at the WGC-Mexico Championship was don’t-blink stuff. Lefty began the day two strokes off the lead, was one of six players to hold at least a share of the top spot and birdied Nos. 15 and 16 to force overtime with Justin Thomas, who just happens to be the game’s hottest player.
In typical Phil fashion, he didn’t make it easy.
He missed the fairway at the 11th hole, hit his next shot into a row of hedges and weaved a pitch between trees on his way to a bogey that dropped him two strokes off the pace with seven holes to play.
He caromed two tee shots off carts paths in a three-hole stretch, hit a tree and “a bunch of people” along the way – exactly what we’ve come to expect from one of the game’s most entertaining players.
Finally, facing another missed opportunity, he did something he’d been unable to do for over four years, holing key putts and avoiding the kind of mistakes that have defined a winless drought that stretched back to the 2013 Open Championship.
But when Mickelson finally settles into retirement, it won’t be his frenzied give and take with Thomas, who played his last 36 holes at Chapultepec Golf Club in 16 under par, or those clutch putts coming down the stretch that will define his 43rd celebration. It will be the validation that comes after more than four years of trial and (largely) error.
At 47 years old, Phil Mickelson has redefined himself. He’s no longer an aging legend clinging to misplaced confidence, or a player who has struggled with focus and poor swing mechanics. Instead, he’s emerged from the longest victory slump of his career like a competitive Benjamin Button.
“I believe it's going to continue to get better each week,” Mickelson reasoned following his victory over Thomas on the first playoff hole. “I don't think that this is the apex or the peak, I think I'm going to continue to get better, I think I'm working on the right things. I knew it was going to happen, but having validation means a lot.”
Flanked by a World Golf Championship trophy it’s easy to have that kind of confidence, but know that throughout this process Mickelson never waivered.
“It was always a matter of when, not if [he would win again],” said Mickelson’s brother, Tim, who replaced Jim “Bones” MacKay on Lefty’s bag last year. “I don’t think there was ever any doubt.”
He never allowed himself the indulgence of doubt, that wouldn’t be in Mickelson’s character, but that doesn’t mean Lefty was immune from the weight of his own expectations.
He failed to advance to the Tour Championship in three of the last four seasons and needed a captain’s pick for last year’s Presidents Cup to keep his team participation streak intact. Mickelson would have the occasional flashes of brilliance, like his three runner-up finishes in 2016, but he could never maintain any level of consistency.
“Over the last four-and-a-half years I've been extremely frustrated knowing that I've been able to play at this level and I haven't been doing it,” Mickelson conceded. “Knowing that I'm able to hit shots and I haven't been doing it, hitting some of the crazy shots that I've hit, that's led to a source of frustration.”
Although he’d regularly insist that he was close, there’s no substitute for results, which until the last few weeks hadn’t been there with any consistency.
But things started to change last month. He tied for fifth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, second at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and set the table for his WGC walk-off with a tie for sixth two weeks ago at the Genesis Open.
As the week progressed in Mexico, those mental lapses and loose swings disappeared and he began playing a brand of golf that was more calculated. He made just a single bogey over 36 holes to earn a spot in Sunday’s final group, his first appearance in an anchor pairing since the 2016 Open Championship.
After that, it was all muscle and mental memory.
The nerves, the anticipation, the excitement that come with being in contention late on a Sunday all came back to him. He wasn’t perfect, but then Lefty never is. Despite hitting just 7 of 14 fairways, Mickelson two-putted from 32 feet at the 15th hole to inch to within a shot of the lead and rolled in a 19-footer for birdie at the next to move into a three-way tie with Thomas and Tyrrell Hatton.
“I love that nervous feeling that you get when you're in contention, I just haven't felt it that often,” he said. “I was certainly nervous heading into today's round, the pre-round warm-up, all that stuff. That's all part of it, though. That's what's exciting and that's what's so fun and that's what I've missed.”
The finish was rather anti-climactic, with Mickelson two-putting for par at the first extra hole after Thomas, who earned his spot in overtime after holing out from 121 yards for eagle at the 72nd hole, missed the green and failed to make par.
But then it won’t be the relative ease of victory that will be the lasting memory of Lefty’s long-awaited bounce back, either.
He may be one of the game’s most well-versed players, with an uncanny ability to speak at length about any subject, but he’s largely endured in private the last few years, reluctant to talk about his lack of focus and swing issues. Instead, he worked harder than he ever has on his swing, body and mind.
“I know there were other victories that will have a lot of meaning, but this one is very special,” said an emotional Steve Loy, Mickelson’s longtime manager. “This guy has done a lot of things to get ready for this moment and never really got acknowledged for all the hard work and the passion and the pain he’s had to endure.”
Lefty had gone 0-for-101 since winning the ’13 Open, and there was a growing thought that his best days were behind him and the game – now dominated by a parade of players half Mickelson’s age – had moved on. Lefty had other plans.
However, and whenever, Mickelson closes out his career, his 43rd Tour title will stand out because validation can be much more meaningful than a trophy.
Just before leaving Chapultepec, bound for a much different future, Mickelson was asked if he ever thought that his victory in ’13 at Muirfield would be his last: “No, I knew that that wasn't going to be my last one. And this isn't either.”