June 22, 2021

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Ageless wonder Mickelson wins PGA to be oldest major champ

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The pandemonium closed in around Phil Mickelson as he walked toward the 18th green at Kiawah Island, where thousands upon thousands of euphoric fans wanted a piece of the history he delivered Sunday in the PGA Championship.

For all the thrills and spills that have defined his 30 years of pure theater, his latest act gave Mickelson his own place in the game.

A major champion at age 50, the oldest in the 161 years of major championship golf.

That final walk toward a two-shot victory was as much stress as he faced over the final hour, and it was a bit scary until Mickelson emerged out of the masses and flashed a thumbs-up.

“Slightly unnerving,” Mickelson said, “but exceptionally awesome.”

Just like his game.

Mickelson never thought he was too old to win again, much less a major. He just didn’t have much evidence on his side until a remarkable four days at Kiawah Island where he kept his nerve and delivered all the right shots for his sixth major, and by far the most surprising.

He made two early birdies with that magical wedge game that never left him, and then let a cast of challengers fall too far behind to catching him in the shifting wind off the Atlantic.

Mickelson closed with a 1-over 73 to win by two over Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.

“One of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life,” Mickelson said. “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.”

That list didn’t include Mickelson. Never mind that he had not won in more than two years, had not registered a top 20 in nearly nine months and last won a major in 2013 at the British Open.

Never mind that he was No. 115 in the world.

“This is just an incredible feeling because I believed it was possible, but everything was saying it wasn’t,” Mickelson said.

Julius Boros for 53 years held the distinction of golf’s oldest major champion. He was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio.

The record now belongs to Mickelson, whose legacy is as much rooted in longevity as any of the skills that have made him among the most exciting players in the game.

Mickelson became the 10th player to win majors in three decades, an elite list that starts with Harry Vardon and was most recently achieved by Tiger Woods.

Woods, who won the Masters in 2019 at age 43 after four back surgeries, was among to send a tweet of congratulations.

Mickelson became the first player in PGA Tour history to win tournaments 30 years apart. The first of his 45 titles was in 1991 when he was still a junior at Arizona State.

“He’s been on tour as long as I’ve been alive,” Jon Rahm said. “For him to keep that willingness to play and compete and practice, it’s truly admirable.”

Koepka and Oosthuizen had their chances, but only briefly. Koepka was 4 over on the three par 5s he faced when the game was still on and closed with a 74. Oosthuizen hit into the water as he was trying to make a final run and shot 73.

“Phil played great,” Koepka said. “It’s pretty cool to see, but a bit disappointed in myself.”

Koepka also got lost in the chaos and said it was the most his right knee, on which he had ligament surgery two months ago, hurt all day.

This was history in the making. No one wanted to miss it.

Tom Watson came close at Turnberry in 2009 when at 59 he had a one-shot lead playing the 18th hole and made bogey, losing the British Open in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Greg Norman was 53 when he had the 54-hole lead at Royal Birkdale and failed to hang on in the 2008 British Open.

Mickelson didn’t let this chance pass him by.

“It was like the Phil that I remember watching just when I turned pro and it was great to see,” Oosthuizen said. “I mean, what an achievement to win a major at 50 years old, and he deserves all of that today.”

Mickelson finished at 6-under 282

The victory came one week after Mickelson accepted a special exemption into the U.S. Open because at No. 115 in the world and winless the last two years, he no longer was exempt from qualifying. As recently as a month ago, he was concerned that he could not keep his focus for 18 holes and kept throwing away shots that set him back.

And then he beat the strongest field of the year — 99 of the top 100 players — and made it look easy at times.

The PGA Championship had the largest and loudest crowd since the return from the COVID-19 pandemic — the PGA of America said it limited tickets to 10,000, and it seemed like twice that many — and it clear what they wanted to see.

The opening hour made it seem as though the final day could belong to anyone. The wind finished its switch to the opposite direction from the opening rounds, and while there was low scoring early, Mickelson and Koepka traded brilliance and blunder.

Koepka flew the green with a wedge on the par-5 second hole, could only chip it about 6 feet to get out of an impossible lie and made double bogey, a three-shot swing when Mickelson hit a deft pitch from thick grass behind the green.

Mickelson holed a sand shot from short of the green on the par-5 third, only for Koepka to tie for the lead with a two-shot swing on the sixth hole when he made birdie and Lefty missed the green well to the right.

Kevin Streelman briefly had a share of the lead. Oosthuizen was lurking, even though it took him seven holes to make a birdie.

And then the potential for any drama was sucked out to sea.

Oosthuizen, coming off a birdie to get within three, had to lay up out of the thick grass on the 13th and then sent his third shot right of the flag and into the water, making triple bogey.

Just like that, Mickelson was up by five and headed toward the inward holes, the wind at his back on the way home with what seemed like the entire state of South Carolina at his side.

The next stop is the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the only major keeping Mickelson from the career Grand Slam.

“It’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win, like if I’m being realistic,” Mickelson 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.”

Even at 50, Mickelson still keeps everyone guessing what he will do next.

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