KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Did you see the news bulletin the PGA of America released Sunday night around 7? Let us paraphrase:
*The pandemic is over;
*Fifty is the new 40;
*The Tiger-Phil thing is a thing again;
*Meditation is now the crack-of-dawn workout routine;
*Trooper glasses are in; sunblock is out.
OK, truth-or-dare: Did you see this coming?
Tim Mickelson saw this coming. (Caddie, brother.)
Steve Loy saw this coming. (Agent, soul mate.)
Andrew Getson saw this coming. (Swing instructor.)
Phil saw this coming.
Everybody else, pretty much. Amy, maybe.
Amy Mickelson, her generation’s Barbara Nicklaus, was on hand for her husband’s first major win (2004 Masters), second major win (2005 PGA Championship), third major win (2006 Masters), fourth major win (2010 Masters) and fifth major win (2013 British Open). But she was there only in spirit for his sixth major win, Sunday’s combined British Open/PGA Championship.
Save your ink, save your ink. This 103rd PGA Championship, on the Ocean Course here, did at times look like a British Open. Especially on TV. Windswept and brackish with brownish fairways and nasty bunkers and, at times, bounding golf balls. But, upon close inspection — playing it, caddying on it, spectating the tournament from its dunes — it’s not a links at all. It’s a collection of 18 difficult holes, each one often disconnected from the one before it, on incalculably valuable resort real estate. But it is true that the two men who have won PGAs here, Rory McIlroy in 2012 and now Mickelson, do have their names on ye olde Claret Jug.
Back to Amy. She loves the British Open, the woolen capes, the Glaswegian accents, the walking paths through the dunes. She was not on hand this week. But she surely watched as hubby, two putts away from a two-shot victory, made his way through the delirious post-pandemic (you better hope!) mob on 18 to the home green. (Just like they do over there, Sunday nights, last hole at the Opens.) Phil got reacquainted with the Wanamaker Trophy (at 30 pounds, a definite keeper), went to the mic, thought of his wife of 25 years and said, “I’ve got to thank a few people, and my wife is first on the list because without her love and support I wouldn’t be here, and I can’t wait to get back and see her tonight.”
Mickelson is now the oldest player to have a major, taking the mantle from the great Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48. Jack Nicklaus famously won the 1986 Masters at 46. Tom Watson lost the 2009 British Open in a playoff at age 59. For a while in the aftermath of the 2014 Ryder Cup, Watson and Mickelson were not on speaking terms. But when Watson’s wife, Hilary, died in 2019 at age 63, Amy and Phil went to the funeral and there’s been a warming, each to the other, ever since. That’s how it should be. They’re in the club-within-the-club, among the all-time greats.
Boros is in it, too. (He was 29 when he turned pro and went on to win two U.S. Opens and the PGA and 20 or more other events.) It has been said of Boros that he had a face that belongs on Mount Rushmore. There are shades of Boros’ swing in Phil’s move. The big muscles working in unison, the long backswing, the rhythm stolen from a Fred Astaire movie. They don’t make them like that anymore.
It’s an impressive thing, of course, to be the oldest winner of a major, and one of the oldest winners of any event. But this is the thing that really makes it astounding: Mickelson is also one of the youngest players to win a PGA Tour event. He was 20, and still a college golfer at ASU, when he won the Tour’s old Tucson stop. This is not hyperbolic, at all: Phil Mickelson has been one of the best golfers in the world for more than 30 years. On the all-time greatness-over-time list, the only players you could put ahead of him are Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Tom Watson. Raymond Floyd is in the discussion, but Phil eclipsed him on Sunday.
Mickelson is never going to touch Tiger’s place in golf’s record book in any meaningful way, except this one: whose life in golf would you rather have, the smoldering intensity and world-beating dominance that was Tiger Woods from 1996 through 2013 (with some gaps)? Or Phil who has just gone on and on and on and on?
It takes work, to stay good year after year. A half-dozen swing coaches have tinkered with Phil’s swing over the years, including, most notably, Butch Harmon. But in the main, the swing he has now is the swing he’s always had, and the adjustments he’s made, coming of age on balata balls, wooden woods, steel shafts, to today’s space-age game is itself worthy of a doctoral thesis. You could imagine Phil writing and defending such a paper. Dr. Phil Mickelson. He’d like that.
In the main, the swing he has now is the swing he’s always had.
It’s the other Mickelson transformations that are almost mind-blowing. In recent years, he’s transformed his body and gone from chubbster to sleek guy. The clothes got tighter. The arms got bigger. Trooper glasses went on his face. He still signed and signed and signed, but that aw-shucks Wally Cleaver persona died on the side of the road and from its shadows out came bad-ass Phil, talking to his cellphone about hitting bombs while bopping down that long driveway that brings a Masters contestant from Washington Road to the Augusta National clubhouse. Magnolia something. Whatever.
Phil’s all about here-and-now. Having kids will do that. He’s the modern dad, who follows his three kids down their science-and-art rabbit holes. He’s learned the value of social media. He knows what a lot of famous people know: it’s a good way to stay relevant. A good way to stay famous. A good way to make more money.
Like the guy in the ubiquitous Golf Channel ad sings, “You got the brawn. I got the brains. Let’s make lots of money. Uh-uh-uh-uh.” Well, Phil’s got all three. Just ask him. (Check out my calves! Check out my explanation of fluid dynamics! Check out my ride!)
You are tempted to say you saw this coming. He’s looked great on various driving ranges. He’s been dominating in some Champions Tour wins. He won on Tour in 2018 and ’19. He was the first-round leader earlier this month at Quail Hollow. You’re tempted to say: There’s absolutely no way on this green earth that Mickelson, no matter how well he played for most of three days, was going to outplay Brooks Koepka in the fourth round of a major championship on a demanding course in demanding conditions. After that first round lead at Charlotte, he finished close to dead last. Phil’s issue was not an inability to play good golf. It was (seemingly) an inability to do it for four straight days.
He began Sunday afternoon with a one-shot lead, but after one hole, Phil was chasing. A man who is a month short of 51 was chasing a man who was 31. That does not sound like a fair fight. Four and a half hours of sustained mental drain, for a guy who acknowledges attention issues? No other sport would even think of it.
Not many sports would even allow two such protagonists to share a stage.
In 1994, George Foreman won a heavyweight title fight at age 45 over an undefeated 26-year-old, Michael Moorer. Everybody sighed in relief when it was over. Nothing like that happened at Kiawah. Now people want to know: Can Phil complete the career grand slam next month at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, one of his boyhood playgrounds?
This win at the Ocean Course was an incredible display of mind over matter. His first hole alone could have buried a lesser player. Drive it in the rough, hack out a second to the front edge, leave the first putt, from 60 feet, 10 feet short of the hole. That’s not a bad speed read. That’s nerves.
But he used the various tricks he has picked up and turned things around. That’s what this Sunday here was all about. When he holed out from a greenside bunker for a 2 on the par-3 5th, that was Phil being Phil. He removed a little rock behind his ball (per the new rules). He read the wind, right in his face. He made the most rhythmic backswing you could ever want to see. The ball went in. His gloved right hand, holding his wedge, went up. (Shades of Seve!) He gave away the ball to a fan in a wheelchair. Shades of Arnold.
What goes on behind those trooper shades we can’t really know. Yes, he closes his eyes, as Woods, when he was under the watchful eye of Dr. Jay Brunza, did as an amateur and early in his professional career. Mickelson sees a picture of the shot in his mind — he could see himself hitting a CBS drone in his Saturday round — but what does it actually look like? Is it a white ball against a blue sky, as it is in real life? Or maybe it’s a red-streak racing across a black blanket of New Mexico sky?
The back nine was madness. Not of Phil’s doing. It was the crowd. The beer and heat and wind and pandemic hangover. Mickelson nutted shots. He outdrove Koepka. He took crazy amounts of time to do his whole be-the-ball pre-shot routine. He was in his own world. Yes, the right thumb went up again and again and again, but Phil was in his own world. All the greats are. They love having people look at them. But they are in their own worlds.
The winning caddie was asked where his brother’s motivation comes from.
“He just loves golf — he loves golf. When he’s at home, he’s still playing almost every single day, sometimes 36. He’s grinding. It never stops for him,” Tim Mickelson said. “He just loves to compete against people at golf.”
There is no reason to doubt a word of that. You could go one step further. Those words are almost demonstrably true. Anybody who has watched Mickelson compete and play practice rounds and hit range balls will tell you that.
But there must be more at work than that. “I’ve never been driven by exterior things,” Mickelson said when the long day was over. He said a lot of things. He always does. But nothing grabbed your attention more than that, because you knew it had to be true. Golf, played at Phil’s level, will give you fame and money and status. Those are exterior things. Other people give you money, a reward for doing something well. Other people confer status and fame upon you. Many, many people crave those things. If you’ve watched Mickelson’s career unfold, it’s obvious that those things mean a great deal to him. That’s not a judgment. Really, it’s the way of the world.
But then there’s another thing, a thing we all know in our own way: the deep joy that comes from doing a difficult thing well. That’s as interior as interior could be. Phil has that. He must. We all saw what he did, a score and 10 years after his first.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com