KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Phil Mickelson loves the banter, loves the competition, loves golf. That would seemingly be a pre-requisite for greatness, but is hardly a common trait among the elite. It’s why careers fade away, why glory is fleeting.
Lefty never lost that passion, which is why he on Sunday at the PGA Championship he became the oldest major champion in the game’s storied history.
Mickelson is 50, but still acts like a kid. He takes on players half his age and relishes beating them, getting into their pockets in money games. Then he tells the world all about it. And when the calendar kept turning, Mickelson never gave in to the clock on the wall, instead choosing to fight back and stay relevant.
He is the first player in his 50s to claim one of golf’s grandest prizes. To say anyone saw this coming at the beginning of the week would be like spitting into the Kiawah Island wind.
Rickie Fowler, 18 years younger and a frequent playing companion of Mickelson’s, took in the euphoric scene in front of the Ocean Course clubhouse late Sunday as thousands of fans chanted the PGA champion’s name. Fowler marveled at the accomplishment.
“It’s the same way I talk about Tiger [Woods], they’re both golf nerds,” Fowler said. “I got to spend some time with Phil the week before he went to (the Valspar Championship) and he was just playing a bunch of golf. Because we were in carts, you could play as many holes as you wanted. He just wanted to go play.
“The love is there. He obviously loves the game. And he still has the drive to go and chase. This is a pretty big deal. It’s record-breaking. Will it ever be done again? Who knows. But this is pretty special.”
Mickelson surpassed Julius Boros as the oldest major champion. Boros was 48 when he won the PGA Championship in 1968. Tom Morris Sr. at 45 was the oldest to win The Open, during Andrew Johnson‘s presidency. Jack Nicklaus was considered ancient when he won the Masters at 46 in 1986. And Hale Irwin, in the tournament on a special exemption, won the U.S. Open in 1990 at age 45.
Those are outliers. Davis Love III was the last player to win on the PGA Tour past the age of 50 — and he did that six years ago.
The game is too deep, the young players too seasoned, the physical skills too demanding for AARP members to remain factors. And yet here is Phil, nearly a decade after going into the World Golf Hall of Fame, finishing above them all, including Brooks Koepka, the four-time major winner who seemed poised to steal Phil’s brilliance.
“Worked harder is the deal,” Mickelson said. “I just had to work harder physically to be able to practice as long as I wanted to and I’ve had to work a lot harder to be able to maintain focus throughout a round. That’s been the biggest challenge of late.
“My desire to play is the same. I’ve never been driven by exterior things. I’ve always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete. I love playing the game. I love having opportunities to play against the best at the highest level. That’s what drives me, and I think the belief that I could still do it inspired me to work harder. I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. It just took a little bit more effort.”
Mickelson’s 1-over-par 73 on Sunday had its moments of glory and gory. He holed a sand shot on the fifth for a birdie; he drove it into the water on the 13th and made bogey. He double-hit a pitch shot on the third and made bogey; but he blasted a drive on the seventh to set up a birdie.
He began the day with a one-shot lead over Koepka, seemed doomed after a shaky first hole that saw him lose the advantage, then took it back on the next hole. There were five multi-shot swings between Mickelson, Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen in the first 10 holes.
But ultimately, Mickelson prevailed, helped by the fact that his closest pursuers were unable to avoid the pitfalls that the Ocean Course presented all week.
He even overcame two equipment malfunctions, one that saw his beloved 2-wood need to be replaced after the face caved in while practicing Saturday night. Mickelson’s 2-iron suffered the same fate while warming up Sunday. So he went to a 4-wood instead, one that he used several times off the tee.
The result was a nervy final round that saw him hit 7 of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens while finding success off the tee and in his iron game. Mickelson hadn’t finished among the top 20 going back 17 events to last summer. And here he is holding the hardware.
“When you don’t expect them, they are one-of-a-kind,” said Steve Loy, Mickelson’s coach at Arizona State and his long-time agent. “I knew we would win a Masters. I knew he was going to win more than one major. I never dreamed he’d win The Open (which he did in 2013 at Muirfield). To come back and do this on this course, after we haven’t had a great two years, it’s heaven sent.
“This is maybe his greatest win because of the golf course, the venue, the odds against him. It’s breathtaking. I told him in a text this morning, I said, ‘Phil, I’m getting too old for this, but you aren’t. Let’s get it done.”’
Given where Mickelson was just a few weeks ago, this seemed like an impossible dream. He bogeyed two of the last three holes at Innisbrook to miss the cut at the Valspar Championship. He was at a loss for words afterward. He suggested that week he was unsure if he would accept a special exemption to next month’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Then he opened the Wells Fargo Championship with a 64 to take the first-round lead, only to follow with scores of 75-76-76, relegating him to 69th. Trying to take on Kiawah’s Ocean Course, where the wind whipped off the ocean every day, appeared futile.
But while others withered in the wind, Mickelson stood tall, hanging near the lead after the first round and moving to the top after 36 holes.
“He never doubted himself,” said Tim Mickelson, Phil’s brother and his caddie since 2017. “His will and desire to win is as high as it’s ever been in my opinion. He just loves golf. He loves golf. I mean, when he’s at home, he’s still playing almost every single day, sometimes 36 [holes]. He’s grinding. It never stops for him.”
Things did stop for a moment for Mickelson when he was engulfed by the masses while trying to play the 18th hole. Still with work to be done, Mickelson got caught up in the crowd first as he surveyed his approach to the green, then again after knocking it safely onto the green, from where he would two-putt for the two-shot victory.
It was a rare scene, a champion being celebrated before the job was done. Mickelson, always a man of the people, was among them for a few harrowing moments, swept up in the adulation.
“It’s a moment I’ll always cherish,” he said.
Now a six-time major winner, joining Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo at the number, Mickelson’s legacy is secure. But we said the same thing eight years ago when he swept out of Muirfield with the Claret Jug.
A U.S. Open is in the near future, at a Torrey Pines course Mickelson grew up playing. And he clearly still loves the chase.