And there he was at the other side Sunday, this time the ropes dropped and thousands pressing in all around him as he walked up 18, almost suffocating him in humanity after all this time of keeping social distance. “It was slightly unnerving but exceptionally awesome,” Mickelson said afterward. The line between celebration and riot blurred Sunday.
Tennessee Williams used a typewriter and Phil Mickelson employs a wedge, but both are great dramatists. And that was the case again Sunday, as he rode wild leaderboard swings early, before nailing down his final-round 73, good enough to put him two up on Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.
“I don’t know how to describe the feeling of excitement and fulfillment and accomplishment to do something of this magnitude when very few people thought that I could,” Mickelson said later.
Phil Mickelson misses a putt on the 11th green during the final round at the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Kiawah Island, S.C. (Matt York/AP)
Credit: Matt York
Credit: Matt York
Naming his wife, the brother that was on his bag and his swing guide, Mickelson added, “But the people that believed in me are the people that continued to inspire me to get the best out of me.”
Most believed the old guy had lost it, that Leftie had been left behind. Why doesn’t he stick to the over-50 tour, where the pickings were easy (he won the first two of those he entered)? His best finish of the season had been a T-21 at the Masters, and that was pretty much on muscle memory. As a couple weeks ago in Charlotte, he may be capable of putting up one good number — an opening-round 64. But he just can’t sustain — he finished 75-76-76, in 69th place.
Same could be said of Mickelson as late old friend Tom McCollister wrote of Jack Nicklaus in advance of the 46-year-old’s Masters victory in 1986: “Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn’t have the game anymore.”
Five years older, shouldn’t have Mickelson been even goner, and more done? The last of his previous five major championships was eight years in the past, a dimming memory.
Want more reasons that this shouldn’t have happened?
Reflected in Mickelson’s sunglasses — you reach a certain age, that coastal glare is brutal — was the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (S.C), the longest layout in the history of major championships. Ribbons of green surrounded by sand and primordial marsh where things far worse than double bogeys live. Flagsticks bending in cutting gusts. It was supposed to be too long and too rugged for players of a certain age.
Tell that to the guy who on Sunday hit the longest drive of the tournament on the par-5 16th, Mickelson’s 366-yard blast splitting the fairway. His birdie there gave him three shots to play with on the closing two holes.
It was Gen-X Mickelson vs. The Millennials. And the kids just couldn’t keep up.
Paired in the last group of the day with Koepka, who would beat Mickelson any day in a pose-down but couldn’t match him in meaningful shots Sunday.
Mickelson walked to the first tee one-up on Koepka. He left the first green one down, losing his lead after a very shaky three-putt bogey while Koepka knocked down his birdie.
You might want to sit down here, because the details of the next few holes will make you dizzy.
No. 2: Mickelson goes up two after a rebound birdie and Koepka butchers the par-5 (a trend this day) and takes double bogey.
No. 5: With the shot of the tournament, Mickelson holes out from 50 feet from the sand for birdie, goes two up. The shot that will be replayed until the sun goes dark.
No. 6: Missing fairway and green, Mickelson bogeys, Koepka birdies, and they’re tied again.
No. 7: Another two-shot swing on a Mickelson birdie and Koepka bogey.
The violent rocking stopped there. Mickelson built as much as a four-shot lead, with his closest pursuers Koepka (74) and Oosthuizen (73) unable to go low enough to trouble him further.
In the end, it was confirmed that disbelief makes the best stories.
Now, you wonder how much farther Mickelson can stretch the fabric of believability? He already accepted a special exemption to play in next month’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines — so ramshackle was his game, he needed that a week ago. But he doesn’t require that charity now, winning a five-year exemption to all the biggies (he already had the Master covered, times three).
“It’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win, if I’m being realistic,” he said.
“But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run. I don’t know.
“But the point is that there’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.”
Wonders never cease, we were reminded Sunday. Nor do they come easily.