One of the underrated parts of The Match is the minutiae you can pick up on when some of golf’s biggest names let their hair down. Or, in Phil Mickelson’s case, when he puts his entertainer hat on and starts spinning a yarn.
In the waning moments of the Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau beatdown on Friday, Mickelson revealed that he had a story he wanted to tell. He may have been intending to save it for one of the final holes of the Match, but suddenly Koepka was 4 up with four holes to play and the 12-hole match had suddenly become a nine-hole affair. With Koepka on the brink of victory, Mickelson wanted to remind everyone about his own triumph over Big Bad Brooks.
He started strategically: With flattery.
“Brooks has this incredible ability to take energy, positive or negative, and to take the best out of it,” Mickelson said. But then, like many of Mickelson’s stories these days, he steered it to the PGA Championship in May. Koepka was one shot back and heavily favored going into that final round at Kiawah — but it was Lefty who came out on top, firing a Sunday 73 to Koepka’s 74 to win by two.
“When we were paired together in May, I knew that I didn’t want to antagonize him or upset him in any way because it was just gonna bring the best out in him,” Mickelson said. “So I went into that day thinking, ‘Alright, I’m not going to talk a lot to him because I don’t want to think I’m trying to get in his head.'”
There’s plenty to unpack there already. Namely, the idea that Mickelson had a specific strategy for dealing with his opponent. Golfers typically stick to the party line, something about playing my own game or taking it one shot at a time. But Mickelson was specifically thinking about how his talented opponent was going to play — and how he could avoid poking the bear.
“And all I did was say the nicest of things like, ‘Oh, great shot!’ Or ‘Oh, what a great birdie!’ Or ‘Awesome up-and-down!’ Or whatever. Because I didn’t want to give him anything to feed off of because he just knows how to turn animosity or any type of energy from the crowd. Like with Tiger, when he was making that run at him at the PGA at Bellerive, he was able to harness that energy and bring out the best in himself and I just didn’t want to give him anything to feed off of.
Mickelson was well aware of that Bellerive Sunday, when Woods had the St. Louis crowd on its feet but Koepka was unflappable, flagging approach shots when he needed them most and closing out Woods by two shots. At Kiawah Mickelson’s own legacy hung in the balance; if Koepka won then the two would suddenly be tied with five majors apiece. If Mickelson won, on the other hand, his lead would be back to two over any other Tour pros not named Woods.
“And as soon as you predict that he’s going to struggle or he goes up against somebody that he really wants to beat, it brings out that energy and he just gets the best out of it,” Mickelson said. That’s likely a reference to Brandel Chamblee, who doubted Koepka and lived to regret it. In his eyes, the rest was history. Despite a bogey at No. 1, Mickelson made four birdies in the first 10 holes to seize the lead for good.
You remember how it ended, of course: With Mickelson out in front of an enormous, unruly mob while Koepka got swallowed up. He left the day frustrated about losing and chippy about getting dinged up by a spectator. The PGA of America later apologized to both players for not keeping them clear of the crowd. It seems like it’s all good now, especially when Koepka’s 4 up. Everything is all good when you’re 4 up.
Still, Koepka laughed and said that he remembered Mickelson’s approach slightly differently.
“Phil just slow-played it,” he said. “We weren’t talking to each other. But he was going to the bathroom every three holes, he was doing that alpha-beta [brainwave] thing that Bryson and Phil were just talking about, he was sitting there and closing his eyes before every shot.”
Mickelson didn’t deny those charges, either. Instead, he laughed. It’s only fitting that Koepka found a chip to put on his shoulder even when Mickelson was specifically trying to avoid it.
“That’s why I wear sunglasses, so you can’t tell when my eyes are closed,” he said. “That’s actually true.”
They say history is always written by the winners, so we’ll take Mickelson’s story at face value. After all, he’s the one with the trophy.