Why Phil Mickelson’s wild PGA ride felt even more wild inside the ropes

phil mickelson inside ropes

Phil Mickelson escaped from a sticky situation at No. 16.

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — What was the most Phil Mickelson hole that Phil Mickelson played on Saturday?

The obvious choice feels like Kiawah’s par-5 16th, where Mickelson’s tee shot went so far right it threatened to reach the beach, interrupted only by one fan’s shoulder and a well-placed golf cart. Once they moved the cart out of the way, he slashed his way back to the fairway, lipped out a birdie putt and settled for par.

You could argue, too, that the most-Phil hole was No. 3. That’s where he hit a wayward tee shot, fanned left into the waste bunker, only to send a wedge from that sand over a tree before it stopped dead so close to the hole he could have kicked it in with one of those giant black G/Fore shoes.

You could make a case for No. 4, too, where Mickelson — never shy to voice a request — asked that CBS move its drone from his intended line of flight.

“Can you radio to the TV guys to move the drone out of the line of my shot?” Mickelson asked. “Not only is it annoying, but it’s gonna hit it.”

He hit 6-iron into a waste bunker, then got up-and-down for par. You might wonder what an up-and-down like that would be worth in one of Mickelson’s Tuesday games.

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If you’re a pessimist you’d point to the 13th as Mickelson’s trademark hole; he entered with a three-shot lead and snap-hooked his tee shot into the water. On the next tee box his lead had shrunk to one.

But I’d argue the most Phil Hole of all was the last. By the time Mickelson and Oosthuizen teed off on 18, the attention was all on them — and, with apologies to King Louis, that meant it was completely Phil’s. Every showman likes the stage to himself, after all. Mickelson launched a high cut off the right bunker, a cool 342 yards, leaving himself in perfect position, short iron in hand. Could he extend his 54-hole lead to two with a closing birdie?

That would be far too easy. Instead Mickelson fanned his approach short and right, leaving himself a short-sided flop shot from a tight lie, an entire amphitheater watching. He opened his wedge extra-wide, took a big ol’ Phil Mickelson Flop shot swing and nearly hit the hole. His par putt hung on the edge and then just fell in. That’s Phil, in a hole. High bomb. Unforced error. Tasty wedge shot. Extra drama.

Phil Mickelson made a ridiculous up-and-down on 18 (with this writer in the white hat crouching behind him.) Getty Images

If you’re reading this story you were likely watching some of the PGA Championship from the comfort of your couch. With that in mind it’s my job to give you a little on-the-ground flavor from Kiawah Island. What was it like, inside the ropes, following Phil?

It was a whole lot of things. Crowded, for starters. There are allegedly 10,000 fans on site this week. I’d testify that 10,000 ringed the 17th hole as Mickelson and Oosthuizen approached the green — and that was after they stopped serving alcohol, which sent a fair portion of attendees home early. I’m lucky enough to have attended a half-dozen PGA Tour events since last March, and none of them felt (or sounded) even a tiny bit like this.

It was tense. We’ve seen Mickelson play some exhibitions in recent memory, alongside Tom Brady and Charles Barkley. He’s a ham, in that setting. Today? Not so much. Mickelson’s round looked like hard work. He took extra time just about everywhere. He smiled hardly at all. He’s talked plenty in recent weeks about struggling to focus, but on Saturday it seemed he was using all his energy to make sure he was wholly locked in.

The intrigue of experiencing Mickelson in person, though, is all the minutiae. Seeing firsthand just how high he tees up the ball. It was extra-high on No. 16, when he nearly hit a sea turtle. But it was extra-high on No. 18, too, where he bombed it 342 down the middle.

It’s hard to believe unless you see it in person just how much energy Mickelson unleashes with driver. Or how much glare comes off those sunglasses.

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It’s hard to fully understand the crowd interactions, too. On Saturday it was the scrum at 16 that stood out. Directly after impact, the sand-dune crowd suddenly closed in around him, juiced up on adrenaline and Michelob. Two security guards plus Mickelson’s brother/caddie Tim jumped in to secure a perimeter, but one particularly frisky fan seemed set on giving Mickelson a pat on the back. When that man touched Mickelson’s shoulder he sprung forward like he’d been electrocuted. “Don’t touch me!” he yelped, speeding back under the safety of the ropes. Watching golf is slow, until it suddenly isn’t.

The insight from watching Mickelson up close is the case for watching golf in person, period. You can see the tension in his jaw and the way, through pre-shot visualization, he tries to relieve it. You can see the deep, intentional, measured breathing. You can hear the fans screaming at him. You can sense the mix of emotions Mickelson feels towards the crowd when he gives that thumbs up. He’s glad they’re there. But it all might be a little too much.

I was hardly the only person watching Mickelson from inside the ropes, though. Oosthuizen had an even better seat to the action. He witnessed Mickelson going full send, five under through 10, three over the rest of the way. He was impressed and intrigued.

“Phil hit two bad tee shots and cost him three shots,” he said. “Other than that he played beautifully. He putted well. He drove it unbelievably long and straight. I think we all got lucky that he came backwards into the field.”

That “unbelievably long” had some bite to it. Mickelson was 20, 30, even 40 yards past Oosthuizen, when he let it rip. He was inside the top 10 in driving distance even with some snap-hooks mixed in.

Louis Oosthuizen is a perceptive guy; he was well aware he wasn’t the fan favorite in the day’s final pairing. “I think the people was a little bit more behind Phil than behind me,” he said with a laugh. “That’s fine — it was good.”

In fact, he said, it was better than good.

“I think after coming back from the break we had, everyone was like, ‘Man, it’s going to be nice not having crowds, just playing.’ But you quickly realized that what it’s all about, to get the adrenaline, to get that little bit more — especially major weeks.

“Today was brilliant.”

Tomorrow should be pretty good, too.

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