In a career full of memorable moments, Phil Mickelson’s now signature one fittingly came with a wedge in his hand.
He’d arrived at the final round of the PGA Championship with a 1-stroke lead that no one thought would hold. Not with the major assassin Brooks Koepka walking alongside.
A rocky start (two bogeys in his first three holes) only reaffirmed the prevailing sentiment that at 50 years old, Mickelson contending at a major was a fun story that would end with a fizzle.
Then came the moment.
It happened at the par-3 fifth. Mickelson had sprayed his tee shot into the sand next to the green. Koepka, meanwhile, was safely on, staring down a birdie putt that, if Mickelson couldn’t get up and down, would push him right back into the lead.
With 50 feet between him and the hole, Mickelson dug in, unleashed a delicate little swing and … four little hops later and a bit of a roll his ball hit the bottom of the cup.
The shot didn’t win him the tournament, but it certainly sent a message to Koepka that the old man was there to play.
Some four hours later, Mickelson was standing on the 18th green hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy, the oldest to ever do so … the oldest to ever win a major championship in the nearly 150-year history of major competition.
It’s Mickelson sixth major victory: 3 Masters, 2 PGAs and The Open.
“This is just an incredible feeling, because I just believed that it was possible but yet everything was saying that it wasn’t,” Mickelson said. “I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work a little harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh is it worth it in the end.”
How inexplicable is this victory?
Well, Mickelson hadn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2019, hadn’t won a major since 2013. At 50, he’s now playing a part-time Champions Tour schedule where in his last appearance he lost by 11 strokes.
He hasn’t exactly been tearing up courses.
Then there’s the history of what he was trying to overcome. Only five people over the age of 45 have ever won a golf major, the oldest (Julius Boros) being 48. Mickelson will be 51 in a few weeks.
After taking the lead after Round 2, hopes rose but expectation did not. Mickelson still wasn’t the oddsmakers favorite. It was a nice little story, a great run for a legend from the past, but the Ocean Course at Kiawah would clench its teeth and force Mickelson into one his patented collapses, right?
Even when that didn’t happen — even after he grabbed ahold of a solo lead heading into Sunday’s final round — Mickelson STILL wasn’t the favorite. Oddsmakers still favored Koepka.
And why not? Despite a bum knee, Koepka once again showed up at a major, just like he does every time one of these things rolls around. He’d won two of the previous three PGAs and is quite simply the best major player walking the planet today.
So when Mickelson started his final round with a brutal bogey and Koepka started his with a birdie — a two-shot swing that put Koepka up 1 — the sentiment was, “Welp, that was fun while it lasted.”
Then Phil birdied the second, Kopeka double bogeyed and the roller-coaster ride that was the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship was on.
For the next 4-plus hours, Mickelson and Koepka did everything they could to let the other take control — finding trees, sand, rough, awkward lies, whatever — while at the same time doing everything they could to keep the chasers – mainly Louis Ooosthuizen — from catching up.
By the time they made the turn, Mickelson had carded more bogeys (3) than pars (2) and yet he had extended his lead to 2.
By the time they walked off the 10th green — after a birdie for Mickelson, a bogey for Koepka — the lead had exploded to 4 shots … and the PGA Championship was Phil Mickelson’s to win or lose.
The match play between he and Koepka began to fad as Kopeka never could get it going. Oosthuizen still lurked, though. But when he plunked his approach on 13 into water, leading to a double bogey, Mickelson’s lead had swelled to five.
Of course, nothing about Mickelson is uninteresting. Back-to-back bogeys at 13 and 14 shrunk the lead over Oosthuizen back to 3, then to just 2 after an Oosthuizen birdie 16.
Mickelson answered with a birdie of his own to grab a 3-shot lead with just two holes to play.
That included the treacherous, water-everywhere 17th. Stay dry with his tee shot and the PGA Championship would be his.
He did, but of course he had to do it with a caveat: his ball nestled into thick grass behind the green. He still needed to dig it out without shooting it across the green and into the water on the other side of the green. In what may have been the most conservative shot of his career, Mickelson punched out well short of the pin, and with that unloaded a massive exhale.
As he walked up 18 with a 2-stroke lead, a massive crowd swarming around him, Mickelson still couldn’t unleash a full smile. Maybe like the rest of us, he wouldn’t believe it until he saw it — until the ball hit the bottom of the cup for the last time.
“Phil! Phil! Phil!” they screamed, Mickelson needing a police escort to navigate his way through the throng that had taken over the course. By the time he emerged from the crowd and onto the 18th green, Mickelson — two strokes in front of Koepka and Oosthuizen — pumped his arm into the air.
A most improbable victory had happened.
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