There’s something profoundly American about the old gunslinger strapping on the iron for one last battle, striding into a windy California sun to prove that — as the poet Toby Keith once said — he may not be as good as he once was, but he’s as good once as he ever was.
That’s an awful lot of symbolic and narrative weight to hoist onto a Phil Mickelson win at Pebble Beach in February, but what the hell — Phil’s always been golf’s Doc Holliday, staring askew at the mad strangeness of the sport. While other golfers couch their views in barely contained on-course explosions and passive-aggressive swipes in the media, Phil’s always there wrapping a lethal verbal stinger inside a smirk. And every so often, his game still keeps pace with his mouth.
So if you’re looking for an unexpected storyline to kick 2019 into redline gear, friend, Phil’s your huckleberry.
All the focus rolling into the 2019 major season has centered on Tiger Woods, with good reason. As Woods goes, so goes the game itself, with ratings and galleries alike trailing in his wake. A strong performance at Augusta in two months, and Woods will steady a swaying game.
Long as we’re focusing on old dudes, however, let’s take a good long look at Phil. He won Monday morning in a hail-and-darkness-delayed AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, completing a round in which he ran down leader Paul Casey with six birdies in the first 14 holes. Mickelson and Casey played the final two holes Monday morning as the sun peeked over the horizon, with Mickelson finishing at -19 to win by three strokes.
Casey had pulled the plug on the round Sunday night on the 16th green, saying it was too dark to see. He was right; the sun had gone down, and Pebble Beach doesn’t have lights. But that didn’t stop Mickelson from grousing. “I can see fine,” he muttered during the CBS broadcast, “I’d prefer to finish the round.” And when the horn sounded, well, you can see Phil’s reaction:
The look on Phil’s face when the horn blew. pic.twitter.com/9A2SNz1qvt
— Skratch (@Skratch) February 11, 2019
The victory marks Mickelson’s fifth win at Pebble Beach, his 44th overall, and his second win in less than a year, following the WGC-Mexico last March. Phil’s 2019 slate already included one win — the hard-fought triumph in that epic war that was “Tiger vs. Phil” — but once you stop laughing at that, you’ll note that he’s got a T2 at the Desert Classic last month. Don’t get too excited, but maybe, just maybe, something’s happening here.
“This is a special place for me,” Mickelson said after the round. “My grandfather, 1919, was one of the first caddies at Pebble Beach. Every time I get here I have such special feelings for what this place means to me and my family.” Come on. A story like that heading into the U.S. Open? The Phil mythology grows by the day.
So what would a return of Phil — the let’s-see-what-happens-if-I-do-this every dad any golf bro over age 30 would love to be — mean to the game?
And here’s where dreams of golf narratives take flight. Mickelson just won at Pebble Beach for the fifth time. Mickelson has never won a U.S. Open; it remains his Great White Whale, the last piece of the puzzle he needs for that career Grand Slam. And hey, guess where the U.S. Open happens to be taking place this year?
Granted, Pebble Beach set up to pro-am conditions will resemble Pebble Beach set up to U.S. Open conditions in the same way that playing “Madden” on Xbox resembles running onto a football field and taking a hit from Aaron Donald. Courses conditioned for Tony Romo and Larry the Cable Guy to succeed aren’t exactly the kind of bonesaw challenge that the USGA prefers.
“It’s nothing like the course we’ll see [at the U.S. Open],” Mickelson said of Pebble after the round. “It’ll be so different. The greens will be so firm. It’ll be a whole different golf course. But I’ll deal with that in six months.”
Plus, Mickelson has a tendency to play his best when the world’s attention is elsewhere. He doesn’t perform in the spotlight, he sidles into it when you’re watching someone else. He hasn’t recorded a top 10 in a major since 2016, and hasn’t done so in a U.S. Open since Merion in 2013. That won’t be the case this summer, when Phil’s Last Chance will become the key story of the U.S. Open.
There are several months, and every single one of the world’s best golfers, standing between Phil’s clinching putt on the 18th at Pebble on Monday morning and that same putt on the Sunday of the U.S. Open. You can come up with a thousand reasons why Mickelson won’t make noise these next few months, why he won’t win the U.S. Open at long last: He’s too old, the competition’s too good, the moment’s too big.
If you’re the gambling type, you wouldn’t bet on Mickelson to close out that career Grand Slam this summer, even with the momentum from this weekend. But if you were to lay that bet, Phil himself would be happy to take that action, and he’d smile like he knows something you don’t.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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