KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Although he’d faded into the reluctant role of ceremonial golfer in many minds, Phil Mickelson is, at his core, still the same SoCal southpaw teen who once bet a local journalist he could beat him … right-handed.
He’s still young at heart and quick of tongue. With age has come all manner of wisdom, but Lefty can still sling shade like a millennial. What good is winning if you can’t remind everyone that you won?
“It was Phil and I against Zach Johnson and Will Zalatoris,” Steve Stricker said of his Monday “match” at Kiawah Island with Lefty. Mickelson and Stricker, a combined 104 years old, went 3 up through three holes over Johnson and Zalatoris, who has fewer PGA Tour starts (27) than Mickelson has Tour victories (45).
“Phil said it loud enough so everybody could hear, ‘You know, Strick, I thought we'd be more up at this point,’ and we were 3 up after 3,” Stricker laughed. “Typical Phil.”
Everything about Sunday’s final round at the 103rd PGA Championship was “typical Phil,” until it wasn’t.
There was drama when he cracked the face on his driving iron before teeing off for the final round clinging to a one-stroke lead. Luckily, he had a backup because, well, he’s Phil. There was the kind of inexplicable extremes that have made Lefty a one-man show his entire career – bogeys at Nos. 1, 3 and 6, and birdies at Nos. 2 and 5. Always a wild ride.
And there was history. Inexplicable, undeniable, glorious history as Mickelson became the oldest player to win a major championship.
“I believed for a long time that I could play at this level again. I didn't see why I couldn't, but I wasn't executing the way I believed I could, and with the help of a lot of people, my wife especially, [swing coach] Andrew Getson and my brother Tim and [manager] Steve Loy, I've been able to make progress and have this week,” the game’s new standard for aged excellence said.
Maybe the only thing that was atypical about Mickelson’s closing 73 and two-stroke victory over Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka was that there was no collapse. When he scrambled for bogey at the par-3 17th hole, he walked to the final tee with a two-stroke lead. This wasn’t Winged Foot, the site of his final-hole meltdown at the 2006 U.S. Open. This wasn’t even Royal Troon, where he was outgunned by Henrik Stenson at the ’16 Open Championship.
This was something altogether different. A study in patience and perseverance from a player who has lived a full life on the razor’s edge. All week at Kiawah Island, Lefty was deliberate and even Sunday as he embarked on a frenzied give-and-take with Koepka, he did so with all the urgency of a third-grader being called in from recess.
“Keep your mind quiet,” Mickelson’s caddie, brother Tim, told him.
It’s no big surprise that Mickelson’s mind has a tendency to race in wild directions and during the so-called prime of his career that active psyche served him well. But as he aged, some would say less than gracefully, he began to wrestle with the unexplainable.
For the better part of two years, Lefty has talked of lapses in concentration and difficulties focusing during rounds. Two weeks ago, when he followed a brilliant 64 on Day 1 with rounds of 75-76-76 at Quail Hollow Club the answer, at least for Mickelson, was a pathological lapse in attention.
But what Phil calls focus others might consider noise, and at this stage in the proceedings there is no shortage of distractions. The ’21 PGA will be remembered as the major where Lefty rewrote the history books, but for Phil it was a victory of the quiet mind.
“All the demons that went around this, his age, he hadn’t played well coming in for the last year, the doubters in his mind and his game, but more importantly it was the challenge of this place,” Loy said. “This was probably the hardest major I’ve seen for a PGA. And then you’ve got Brooks who is a warrior, he’s tough as nails.”
The two-stroke margin of victory will be a misleading footnote for this championship. Although he had room for error late in the day, the flow for much of the round was predictably hurried and Tim Mickelson’s call for a quiet mind was put to the test.
After going full Phil on the first three holes – bogey-birdie-bogey – Mickelson and Koepka ham-and-egged their way to the turn with a better-ball score of 5 under and a worse-ball effort of 6 over. The Ocean Course gives and the Ocean Course takes.
By the time Phil reached the seventh tee, brother Tim had seen enough. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘If you're going to win this thing, you're going to have to make committed golf swings,’” Lefty said. “It hit me in the head.”
When the final group rounded the sandy turn, Mickelson was two shots clear of the field. He birdied the 10th hole, combined with a bogey for Koepka, to go four up and even when things got nervy with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 13 and 14 he never panicked, at least not outwardly.
Earlier this week, Mickelson was asked about his “advanced age,” which is a polite way of telling someone they’re old. In Mickelson’s case it’s also a subtle nod to all that’s come before. The Winged Foots, the Royal Troons, the wild drives and missed opportunities. That kind of baggage can manifest itself in any number of ways, but not on this Sunday.
“He never doubted himself. His will and desire to win now is as high as it's ever been in my opinion,” Tim Mickelson said.
In a twisted world it was probably all that doubt that drove Lefty to work harder than he’d ever worked in his career. As he appeared to age away from the limelight and into that dreaded ceremonial role, the competitor refused to go quietly. He refused to be defined by a number.
“You can’t help but listen to the noise,” Loy said. “You obviously hear the noise. That’s probably what he was talking about all week, he just had to quiet the noise so he could play in the present.”
Tim Mickelson talked his brother into settling for a bogey at No. 17 - think about that for a moment - and when his drive at the last found the left rough, Lefty settled for an approach to the fat of the green. This wasn’t Phil. This wasn’t the normal laser light show of glorious highs and heart-breaking lows.
Phil Mickelson won his sixth major championship and set the standard for ageless Grand Slam excellence with a two-putt par from 16 feet as a crush of fans crowded around the final green. It was bedlam and it reminded Rickie Fowler, who’d ventured out of the clubhouse to watch history, of another chaotic finish.
“It’s East Lake 2.0,” Fowler said, a reference to Tiger Woods’ triumph at the 2018 Tour Championship. “It had the same vibe, the same feel with fans rushing in and those two guys have had a major impact on our game the last 20, 30 years.”
History will decide how Lefty’s late-in-life breakthrough is remembered, with many figuring this would fit in somewhere behind Jack Nicklaus in 1986 at the Masters and Woods two years ago at Augusta National. But it was never history that Mickelson was chasing. It was the rush of competing, whether it’s for a major championship or a friendly Monday match.
“He’s a chatterbox,” Loy laughed, “He can run with the best of them.”
On Sunday he again proved that after all these years that he can still do more than simply talk a good game.