So there is life in the old dog yet. So much so in fact that Phil Mickelson can become the oldest major champion in history – a record that even his old rival Tiger Woods will surely struggle to beat.
Mickelson won his second PGA Championship and his sixth major at Kiawah Island, vaulting him into the sort of company where he really already belonged. If this is a coda to one of the more entertaining careers in golfing history, then it’s a pretty compelling one.
Not that he seems to be finished yet, and we will pause before writing him off again. Indeed, Mickelson’s career has been a complete turnaround to the norm.
You’re supposed to rattle off your majors before you’re 34 and struggle manfully but ultimately hopelessly from then on – see Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, maybe even Rory McIlroy.
Phil won his first at 34 after a myriad of struggles and now has six in the 16 years since. Is it a testament to coffee “wellness” or his sudden interest in the Saudi riyal exchange rate?
Phil Mickelson: an apology (of sorts)
"OH MY GRACIOUS!"
PHIL JUST DID THAT. pic.twitter.com/wA3hu2cNxG
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) May 23, 2021
Your correspondent is not given to making brash predictions in this column, so therefore we have to take my description of Mickelson as “increasingly irrelevant” just a couple of weeks ago in that spirit.
In my defence, there was no warning of this. Mickelson had played like a drain in everything but a few senior tour knockabouts for some time.
In the majors, since his heroic effort at Royal Troon in 2016, his best finish was T18th at the 2019 Masters. That was his sole top 20 finish in five years.
Even at Kiawah, he was two-over after six holes of the first round. But once he had righted the ship, the conditions worked in his favour.
Majors are generally not played in 20mph winds even at the Open anymore. But those who remember how to play in the wind had an advantage over this weekend.
Think Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009 or Greg Norman at Birkdale the previous year. Or indeed, Mickelson at Troon in 2016.
Mickelson’s short game may not be all-world anymore, but there’s plenty left. The hole-out from the bunker (sorry, sandy area) at the fifth on Sunday was when we all realised – you know, he might actually do this.
One last lash at Torrey Pines?
Never mind 😂
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 24, 2021
Mickelson even admitted afterwards that he believed he could come again and win in his fifties, but was having an increasingly hard time believing it.
No doubt he’ll have a good lash at the US Open to try and finish off the career Grand Slam. But I suspect this might have been the same special set of circumstances that Watson and Norman had. Only this time it wasn’t cruelly denied.
Phil actually rewrote the history books on Sunday in more ways than relegating Julius Boros (who was a pretty fair player).
At the end of his time, five majors would look great. But his equally incredible record of ten second places and six thirds in majors would have always included a strong element of what might have been.
His historic sixth major, three weeks from his 51st birthday, surely erased that feeling. It’s properly defined his long, entertaining career at last.
Has Brooks lost the killer instinct?
You’re a true champion and it was a privilege to play with you and compete against you.
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 24, 2021
The thing that really took a fall on Sunday was Brooks Koepka’s reputation as a stone cold killer.
That’s successive PGAs now that Koepka has moved ominously into position for Sunday domination and basically laid an egg.
At Harding Park last year he was flat in the final round and never really got started. This was worse – Mickelson basically handed him the initiative on the first hole. Not content with throwing it immediately back at Phil, Brooks conspired to do it another three times over the front nine.
Koepka’s consistency at the majors is remarkable. Since he missed the cut in 2013 Open at Muirfield – his first as a pro – he’s missed just one more.
That was at the Masters this April, when he was less than two weeks off knee surgery. In 26 events since 2013, he’s finished in the top ten 14 times, including four wins.
Of course this doesn’t compare to the historically incomparable – Tiger Woods from 1999-2008, or Jack Nicklaus through the 1970s – but in this era it’s far and away the best record.
Koepka has obviously been struggling with knee issues for over a year. His method of placing his ball on the greens looked like a yoga position at times.
But he doesn’t seem to have lost the ability to play his best golf at the majors. That’s surely what everyone in the top end of the game is trying to do.
Wouldn’t it be excruciating that with that knack and after four quick major victories, he suddenly lost the ability to close them out?
Welcome back crowds – just not these ones
Much talk of the welcome return of full galleries at Kiawah Island.
While the enhanced atmosphere clearly didn’t hurt the winner and his relentless thumbs-upping – seriously, I counted eight thumbs-ups after he holed that bunker shot at the fifth – it was a profound irritation to this viewer.
It seems that no shot can be hit without some smart-assed, half-drunk spectator attempting to shout something utterly inane he clearly hopes will be picked up on the TV mics and later shared with his equally braindead buddies back home.
Then we had the situation on Sunday when a spectator simply picked up Mickelson’s ball in the rough. Was it a bad lie? We’ll never know.
Drink flows freely at PGA of America events – as we’ve seen in Ryder Cups past – from whenever the gates open. I have little experience of the good people of Wisconsin, but expect Whistling Straits to be the same as Hazeltine.
There was talk of finally doing something about this boorish element after 2016. Instead, after a year of blissful silence, it seems like it’s going to get even worse.