For the most part, the professional golfer who has spent the better part of 30 years allowing fans to come along on his wild journey through the major championships hid his emotions behind a pair of oversize sunglasses. His steps across the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island were measured, at times even glacially slow. When the CBS cameras caught him between shots, he was often stone-faced, drawing purposefully deep breaths.
But now and then, 50-year-old Phil Mickelson broke slightly from the focus that had carried him to a most improbable lead in the PGA Championship and gave his signature thumbs-up to the galleries that were growing behind him.
And then, as he emerged from a wall of humanity that had formed on the 18th fairway and saw that he was an easy two-putt from winning the tournament, three fist pumps went skyward.
That’s what it looks like when an old man puts it together one last time, at a moment when there was nothing to suggest it was coming. That’s what it looks like when the gates of history open and a living legend has the talent and belief to walk through. That’s what it looks like when golf — the only sport where this is really possible — grants us the opportunity to see something so many enjoyed for so many years but never expected to see again.
Phil Mickelson, a major champion for the sixth time and the oldest to ever do it.
Seriously, how did this happen? And how lucky are we to be able to see it?
You can talk all you want about Mickelson’s commitment to diet and fitness the last few years, club technology that allows careers to extend longer and the breathing exercises that he credits with maintaining focus on the course.
But there’s really nothing in the last couple years that would have pointed to Mickelson truly contending for another major, much less winning one.
Between winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February 2019 and this PGA, Mickelson had played 46 PGA Tour events. He’d finished in the top-20 in just three of them and none in 2021. He hadn’t recorded a top-10 finish in a major since 2016.
And, really, would even his most ardent fans have cared if he never sniffed another trophy? Mickelson had nothing more to prove to anybody. His career and his place in the pantheon as not just one of the all-time players, but also one of the game’s most memorable entertainers, was more than secure. He turned 50 last year. That was supposed to be that.
And then … it just wasn’t. You can’t explain it. Why would you even try?
From the moment on the back nine Saturday when he took a five-shot lead, all the way until the final putt dropped on 18, it was pure Mickelson: Aggressive, brilliant, dangerous and ultimately full of both joy and dread.
Starting the final round with a one-shot lead over Brooks Koepka, there was absolutely no way to predict how Sunday was going to play out. Was Mickelson going to be able to grind through 18 more holes under the pressure of knowing it might be his last hurrah? Would he play well and just get beat by a force of nature like Koepka? Would he blow it on 18 like he has a few times in the majors? Would he shoot 80? Would he be Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters or Tom Watson at the heartbreaking 2009 British Open? It felt like any outcome was on the table.
Of course the ride to the finish was bumpy. How could it not be with Mickelson?
Right away, he bogeyed No. 1 and fell behind Koepka, who made birdie. Then it flipped at the second hole with Koepka carding a shocking double-bogey and Mickelson making a routine birdie on the par-5. Mickelson carded another bogey at No. 3, a birdie chip-in from the sand at No. 5, and a bogey on the next hole.
But Sunday wasn’t easy for anyone. Koepka couldn’t mount a charge, and others fell back. For an hour, Mickelson was the steadiest player on the course, building a four-shot lead with eight to go.
Then came perhaps some tightness on 13 and 14, producing poor swings that became bogeys. A make-able birdie putt on 15 that might have shut the door came up short. Then, Mickelson was so amped that he flew the par-3 17th green and had to play safe to secure bogey, taking a two-shot lead over Koepka to 18.
All the adrenaline, all the nerves, the knowledge that Mickelson would likely never be in this position again, it all built to a crescendo as fans spilled onto the fairway behind him as he walked to his ball for his second shot.
Mickelson picked 9-iron from some trampled-down rough. He hit it pin high, about 15 feet from the hole. Somehow, from the depths of a late-career slump that suggested his time had passed, old Lefty had won the PGA.
Historically, of course, it’s a massive moment. Not only is he the first 50-year-old to win a major championship, but Mickelson’s sixth pushes him up the all-time list, onto the same tier as Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino.
And perhaps most poignantly, there’s no longer any need to look at Mickelson’s career through the prism of majors that got away or opportunities blown. With Mickelson, it’s always been about the entertainment value as much as the results, the joy that people have gotten for so many years from his freewheeling style, his creativity, his instincts to go-for-broke and his connection with the galleries that love him.
This was the ultimate payoff for all of it. From behind the sunglasses and the steely glare, Mickelson put together the most impressive performance of his career at age 50, on a brutal golf course, against the best in the world.
As always with Mickelson, you never know where the journey is going to take you or when it’s going to end. But now, we can only stand in awe at his ability to give us one more thrill for the road.