Phil Mickelson’s wacky, historic, up-and-down year

phil mickelson golf

Phil Mickelson embraces his brother and caddie, Tim, after the 2021 PGA Championship.

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Phil Mickelson’s final nine events of 2021 were a mirror image of his first nine: a couple missed cuts, some finishes in the top 20 but also some outside the top 50. In between, though, lies the Mickelson magic, perhaps more in 2021 than we’ve ever seen before. 

After those first nine events and before those final nine events was the solo 69th-place finish at the Wells Fargo, in which Mickelson started with an opening 64, the best in the field, and finished with three rounds of 74 or worse. And then, of course, two weeks later, there’s his historic PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, where he won his sixth career major. A solo 69th, with a flicker of hope, then a 1st on one of the toughest courses on the planet. There may be no way of explaining it, but we’ll try and bask in its glory once more as 2021 comes to a close. 

Just how wild is a 50-year-old winning a major championship? We’ll let those two finishes — 69th and 1st — speak once more. The solo 69th is a not-too abnormal result for Mickelson these days. He has more finishes outside the top 60 in the last two years (5) as finishes in the top 10 (4). 

Moments after his opening 64 at Quail Hollow — a first-round best by two shots — Mickelson teased that of all things, what was working best for him was focus. “Just focus,” he said. “I’m just present on each shot. This course holds my attention. I’ve been doing some like, you know, some mental exercises and so forth just to try to get my focus to elongate over five hours and so forth. That’s been a real struggle for me the last few years because physically, there’s nothing physically holding me back from playing at a high level, but you cannot make mistakes at this level. The guys out here are just so good, and I’ve been making a lot of errors, just simply not being mentally sharp.”

It wasn’t the easiest thing for us commoners to understand. Focus, on a golf course, playing for millions of dollars, doesn’t feel like a tricky thing. Fast-forward 24 hours and Mickelson had polished off a 74. What was the difference, he was asked. That same thing — focus. 

“On 17, we’re standing over the ball and I’m changing my mind and I’m changing the shot, moving the clubhead a little bit and it just — instead of backing away and kind of refocusing, I just kind of hit it and I’m not really kind of aware of what I’m doing. So I’ve got to fix that and work on it.”

Focus was a … focus of Mickelson’s for weeks. He mentioned it in late April after a disappointing finish at the Masters. And then, weeks later at the PGA Championship, Mickelson felt abnormally dialed in. He was less cheery with the fans and media once in contention, keeping the thoughts he shared with reporters to an absolute minimum for sake of more time on the driving range. 

All of his hyper-attention came to a head in the most humorous way during the third round when Mickelson refused to play an approach on the 4th hole because a drone flying beyond the green was in his trajectory line. “Can you radio to the TV guys to move the drone out of the line of my shot,” he said. “Not only is it annoying, but it’s gonna hit it.” 

Focus, focus, focus … can we knock the guy in hindsight? Mickelson’s attention to his attention paid off in the only way that mattered: a victory. At 50 years old, he became the oldest major champion of all-time. The ending, as you likely saw and will remember forever, resulted in thousands of fans swarming the 18th green at Kiawah Island. The image, which was reminiscent of Tiger Woods’ victory at the 2018 Tour Championship, might now be the No. 1 image that will define Mickelson’s career. How do you explain that, at 50 years old? 

“I mean, this is just an incredible feeling because I just believed that it was possible but yet everything was saying it wasn’t,” Mickelson said that night. “I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh, is it worth it in the end, and I’m so appreciative to be holding this Wanamaker Trophy.”

If his muted response and his strangely distant responses to fans throughout the week were worth mentioning, his eventual release late, late Sunday night was worth it. Mickelson took to Twitter after a bit of imbibing to let loose in 240-character increments. 

From that point forward, Mickelson was classic Mickelson for the rest of the year. He chased bombs, riled up some fans in Detroit, chirped at the USGA, played in a widely-covered Tuesday money game at Liberty National, won multiple times on the Champions Tour, played a quiet and impactful assistant captain role at the Ryder Cup and finally was once again a hit on the broadcast of The Match between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. Add it all up and Mickelson will unquestionably be the only 51-year-old to earn millions in the Tour’s initial Player Impact Program. Could he possibly take the top spot? 2021 seems like the wrong year to bet against Lefty.

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Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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