Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 4, 2018

Old Phil Still Thrills

The PGA Tour may have its headquarters in Florida, but in both its membership and its schedule it is a world golf tour. The massive weekly purses as well as the history and prestige of many of its events combine to attract top professionals irrespective of their birth country. Both the Open Championship and the Canadian Open have long been a part of the Tour’s calendar, which now also features regular events in Malaysia, Korea, and Mexico. In addition, for nearly a decade the HSBC Champions, one of the four World Golf Championship events, has been played in China. Last year another of the WGC events was moved from Doral Country Club in Miami to Club de Golf Chapultepec in the suburbs of Mexico City, giving that country its second stop on the Tour’s annual schedule.

That was where an elite field of sixty-five gathered this weekend. The WGC events are all played with limited fields. In the case of what is now known as the WGC – Mexico Championship, invitations are issued to the top fifty golfers in the Official World Rankings, and to those at the top of the money lists of the PGA, European, Asian, Japan, Australasia and Sunshine (South African) Tours.

Every so often a Craig Parry or Russell Knox will lift the trophy at the end of a WGC event, but by and large these tournaments produce the best efforts by the best golfers in the world. Tiger Woods has won eighteen WGC events. Dustin Johnson has won five and is the only golfer to have one all four tournaments at least once. Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, and Hideki Matsuyama have all won multiple times at these international gatherings.

That history was belied by Thursday’s first round leader board. South African Louis Oosthuizen was alone at the top after a 7-under par 64 on the par 71 layout that measures more than 7,300 yards but plays considerably shorter because of the altitude. Oosty at least has a major win at the 2010 Open Championship and has been runner-up at all four majors. But his closest pursuers were anything but household names. Xander Schauffele of the U.S., England’s Chris Paisley, and Indian golfer Shubhankar Sharma shared second place, one shot back of Oosthuizen.

Golf fans hoping for a return to what could be called WGC normalcy were forced to wait until most of the tournament’s 72 holes had been played. Sharma, a 21-year old whose place atop the European Tour money list thanks to a pair of early season wins earned him entry to this event, added a 66 on Friday and a 69 on Saturday to his opening 65, good enough for a two shot lead after both the second and third rounds. By the time Sunday’s final round began there were just four notable names among the top ten. Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia were among four golfers tied for second, Dustin Johnson was another stroke adrift in a four-way tie for sixth, and Justin Thomas, fresh off victory at last week’s Honda Classic and arguably the hottest golfer on the planet with six PGA Tour wins in the last fourteen months, was along in tenth place at 9-under par.

Fans handicapping which of those four had the best shot at giving this WGC tourney a familiar finish likely favored Garcia or Johnson. The former is the reigning Masters champion and won twice more last year on the European Tour, while the latter won this event last year and owns a WGC record that is second only to Woods. As good as Thomas has been over the past year, he had the most ground to make up and the most golfers to pass of the four stars.
Then there was Mickelson. Surely every fan was going to be rooting for him, but sentiment alone doesn’t win golf tournaments. Lefty will turn 48 during this year’s U.S. Open, and he had not won since his remarkable Sunday finish at Muirfield garnered him the 2013 Open Championship, his fifth major title.

So naturally, when order was restored late Sunday afternoon, when Sharma stumbled under the pressure of a final round at one of golf’s most prestigious events, and when the Tour’s top names climbed up the leader board, the two who did so were Thomas and Mickelson.

Thomas did so by shooting the best round of the day, a 7-under par 64. He started fast with two opening birdies and added four more through his round to seize the lead by the time he reached the tee at the par-3 17th. But there his tee shot finished in the right fringe, more than forty feet from the hole. His first putt came up well short and Thomas missed the par save, dropping him into a crowded tie at the top.

That lasted until he struck his approach to the final green from the middle of the 18th fairway. The wedge shot landed just past the flag, checked up and then spun back into the cup for an eagle two. It was the shot of the tournament and thrust Thomas into a two stroke lead at 16-under par. After playing the first two rounds at even and starting the weekend eleven shots back, Thomas had charged through the field with a 62 and a 64. He appeared poised for his seventh PGA Tour win and first in a WGC event.

When he finished tied for third at last October’s Safeway Open, Mickelson said “I feel like I’m pretty close.” In his three most recent events, at Phoenix, Pebble Beach, and Los Angeles, he’s been in the top ten, and offered similar hopeful words. On Sunday, as Thomas was drawing roars on the 18th, Lefty was saving par from off the green at the 14th. Then on the par-5 15th he found the middle of the green with his second shot. The eagle putt curled away, but the three-footer for birdie found the bottom of the cup, cutting Thomas’s lead to one. Mickelson’s approach on the par-4 16th was hole high, twenty feet to the left of the pin. The birdie putt was never in doubt, diving into the hole to give the fan favorite a share of the lead. Two pars later Mickelson and Thomas were headed to a playoff.

They returned to the short 17th, and just as he had an hour earlier Thomas missed the green with his tee shot. An indifferent chip left him ten feet for par. Mickelson lined up his eighteen-foot birdie try, then sent the ball on its way. It kissed the edge and spun around the cup but stayed out. The tap-in par was just fine though when Thomas couldn’t convert his own par save.

It’s more than 5,300 miles from Gullane, Scotland to Mexico City, from Muirfield to Chapultepec. Over nearly five years Phil Mickelson traveled that distance many times over, roaming the world in search of another PGA Tour victory. Now, after one hundred and one starts, he has it, his forty-third. A touring pro never knows if a victory might be his last, but surely there have been moments when the great people’s champion of our time must have wondered. Now that those doubts have been vanquished, and with the greenside chants of “Phil! Phil! Phil” still echoing, he promised golf fans everywhere that “more are to come.”

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