Phil Mickelson turns back the clock with win for the ages at PGA Championship

Fifty years old and up to his knees in South Carolina rough behind the 17th green, Phil Mickelson had a three-stroke lead and an improbable sixth major championship in his grasp.

All he needed to do was hit it safe and clean — something Mickelson has, at times, done both as well, and as poorly, as any golfer ever.

Visions of blown leads, by Mickelson and so many others who play this cruel game, flashed everywhere. He couldn't screw up this one, could he? Of course he could. This is Phil. And this is golf. You can’t take a knee and kill the clock. You have to fight through all 72 holes and, most important, every demon living in the recess of your mind.

KIAWAH ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 23: Phil Mickelson of the United States celebrates on the 18th green after winning during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort on May 23, 2021 in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson celebrates on the 18th green after winning the 2021 PGA Championship. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

No one knew that better than Mickelson, who was making this late-career, late-aged, likely last-chance, charge at the PGA Championship. Younger Phil might have overswung and got it stuck. Younger Phil might have plucked it clean and sailed it into the water looming on the other side.

He also might have holed it. With Phil, anything was possible. Always. That was the fun part.

Old Phil just took a deep breath, a 60-degree wedge and smartly popped it up and out of the tall grass. It landed on the green. No problem. No drama. Two soft putts later, Mickelson was in the clear.

One hole later, he was, at 50 years, 11 months and seven days, the oldest major champion in this old, old game, his 6-under was two better than Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.

The victory set off frenzied galleries on Kiawah Island and whoops from living rooms around the globe. Old fans reveled in seeing an encore performance by one of the game’s most charismatic and approachable stars. New fans got to finally understand what their father was always talking about with this Lefty guy.

Walking up the 18th fairway, Mickelson had to be guarded by law enforcement to keep his fans from hugging him and slapping him on the back. He’d always been the People’s Champ, a smiling, joking, gambling nod to the fun of the sport, even if a more robotic style might have won him more tournaments.

He was the guy who made fun of himself, who wore his green jacket to a Krispy Kreme drive-in, who probably should have hit the fitness center a little more often. No matter. He won plenty and they loved him for it, so when he emerged from a fairway mosh pit to step on the 18th green and finish this, it all felt right.

“Slightly unnerving but exceptionally awesome,” Mickelson would say with a laugh later.

Phil was about to win the PGA. The hell with decorum.

“This is just an incredible feeling because I just believed this was possible but everything was saying that it wasn’t,” Mickelson said. “I hope that others find that inspiration. It may take a little extra work, a little harder effort … but gosh, is it worth it in the end.”

For Mickelson, this is a triumph that came out of almost nowhere. There were few tangible signs it was coming. Perhaps only he believed it was even possible.

Since 2013, Mickelson had won just two times on the PGA Tour and hadn’t cracked the top 20 in any event this year. Across the past 16 major championships, he went top 20 once (T18 at the 2019 Masters), missed five cuts and sat out two events entirely. His last five PGA Championships: T71, T71, cut, cut, T33.

He’d reached the stage of his career where he could excel on the Champions Tour, play a nostalgia act on the main tour and headline charity events such as last year when he and Tiger Woods teamed up with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He was golf’s goodwill ambassador, a rollicking, storytelling persona.

But a contender?

Before the tournament, the PGA brought 21 golfers through the media room for news conferences. Phil wasn’t one of them, a sign of irrelevance.

Through training and diet though, he’d built himself into playing shape of late. And kept telling everyone he was close. He’d found that at 50 he was still physically capable of competing, but he struggled with his concentration.

“I’ve got to have that clear picture and focus,” he said this week.

To work on that, he’d been playing 36 and even 45 holes a day, building up mental and physical stamina. “Trying to elongate my focus,” he said, “... so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn’t feel like it’s that much … I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.”

This, of course, is coming from a guy whose career had been partially defined by famous mental gaffes. He carded nine top-five finishes in majors before finally winning his first at the 2004 Masters.

Most memorably, perhaps, he blew the 2006 U.S. Open on the 72nd hole when he inexplicably hit his driver rather than a safe 4-wood off the tee. Six shots and one ricochet off a hospitality tent later, he finished second and declared: “I am such an idiot.”

That Phil had faded into history, of course. His now six major victories is equaled or bettered by just 13 players in history. His now 45 Tour victories has him tied for eighth all-time. Whatever opportunities had been missed were mostly made up for. His inclusion among the greatest to ever play was cemented long ago.

This, this though, was the exclamation point. He’s now the oldest to ever win a major by more than two and a half years (Julius Boros, 48 years, four months, 18 days, previously held the mark for his 1968 PGA title) and the first, obviously, to do it after passing 50.

This was no fluke either. On Sunday, he outdueled Koepka, who has won four majors and recorded five other top-10 finishes since 2017, plus major champions Oosthuizen and Padraig Harrington.

On a beast of a course that rattled everyone — young and old alike — it was Phil who was mentally the toughest.

KIAWAH ISLAND, SC - MAY 23: Phil Mickelson makes his birdie putt on the fifth hole during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort on May 23, 2021 in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGA of America via Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson chips in for birdie on the fifth hole during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship. (Montana Pritchard/Getty Images)

Not that he just gutted and gritted it out. He played brilliantly. Under significant pressure on the 15th, he uncorked a 337-yard drive, rolling past Koepka, two decades his junior. On 16, he went 366 yards, the longest drive by anyone there all week.

So he could drive for show, too.

Mostly though, this was a testament to ideal strategy. With his younger brother, Tim, on his bag, the Mickelson boys chose the right approaches, clubs and distances. And then there was the chipping and putting, the signature full-swing, flop-shots that defy physics.

Holing in from a green side bunker on five will be replayed forever. The chip from behind the green on 16, with Oosthuizen applying pressure on the scoreboard, to set up an easy tap-in birdie and a three-shot lead may have been even better. Then there was 17.

This was the full Phil experience. All week he just kept hanging around. Seventy, 69, 70 and finally 73 for the win. It was never overwhelming but he outlasted this ocean-side course that crushed everyone else on Kiawah Island.

Basically, when everyone thought Phil might fall apart, he got stronger, an old star playing his greatest hits.

With five bogeys, Sunday certainly wasn’t a perfect closing round. It was just the perfect result, setting off a perfectly wild celebration that perfectly defined the connection between fan base and golfer.

Phil at Fifty. Phil Mickelson, champion again.

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