Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2021

Old Dog Phil Has Learned A Few New Tricks

“The Legend of Bagger Vance” won’t be found on anyone’s list of top-10 sports movies.  Two decades later the 2000 film, which bombed at the box office, grossing only half its production costs, is worth noting mainly because of Jack Lemmon’s narration.  It proved to be Lemmon’s final role in a movie, albeit an uncredited one.  But perhaps the producers were on to something when they chose to shoot some of the golf scenes at the Kiawah Island Resort, home of the Ocean Course, the site of this year’s PGA Championship.  It turns out that on the windswept fairways of Pete Dye’s treacherous design, where the Atlantic Ocean serves as a constant backdrop, Hollywood endings really do happen.  What else can one call the victory by Phil Mickelson, who turns 51 next month, had not won on the PGA Tour since 2019, and didn’t have a top-20 finish at a Tour event in more than a year when he arrived at Kiawah?  Like every touring pro his age, Lefty had turned to the Champions Tour as the place to be if he was interested in cashing a winner’s check or lifting a trophy. 

When he teed it up at a regular Tour event, Mickelson would regularly declare that his game was “getting there” or “really close” or some other variation of promise and potential, and there were individual rounds here and there which lent credence to those pronouncements.  But tournaments are four rounds long, and as evidenced by the results cited above, Mickelson’s on-course performance for many months prior to the start of the season’s second major left him in the ranks of the afterthoughts on lists of potential contenders.  And if a cleareyed assessment of his golf was not enough to exclude him, there was the simple fact of his age.  No golfer over fifty had even won a major.  The closest to turning that improbable feat was Julius Boros, who captured his third major, the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio, almost two months after his 48th birthday.

All that meant when Lefty opened with a 2-under par 70 on Thursday, three shots adrift of first round leader Corey Connors, the attention of fans and the media was elsewhere.  Brooks Koepka, who won back-to-back PGAs in 2018 and 2019 was between Mickelson and Connors at 3-under, as was rising young star Viktor Hovland, and defending champion Collin Morikawa matched Phil’s number.  Any of those three seemed a more likely candidate to still be in the picture come Sunday than did Mickelson.  Hovland and Morikawa didn’t contend, though the latter did put up a decent defense of his title, eventually finishing tied for eighth place.  Though with their brief time on the first page of the leader board both outdid pre-tournament favorites Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, who did well to make the cut.  That in turn bettered some very big names, like the top two players in the world rankings, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, both of whom were spectators for the weekend. 

Still, that Friday supposition proved at least partly prescient, because Koepka added scores of 71 and 70 to his opening 69, good for a 54-hole total of minus-6 and a spot in Sunday’s final pairing, where he’d make history were he to become the first golfer to win this title three times in four years.  But what was utterly unexpected was that when Koepka made his way to the Ocean Course’s 1st tee Sunday afternoon, his playing partner for the tournament’s final walk, and the leader after three rounds, was Mickelson.  Against all odds but in keeping with his consistently stated self-belief, Lefty had matched his opening score on Saturday, and in between the pair of 70s squeezed in a round one shot lower on Friday, all of which added up to a 7-under par total, with 18 holes remaining.

When Mickelson’s opening tee shot found the left rough, leading to an opening bogey, while Koepka’s split the fairway on the way to a birdie, their positions were immediately reversed.  Though the denouement was hours away, surely at that moment golf fans around the world uttered a collective sigh, thinking that here at last was the ending they had feared, when the antique nerves of the old warrior prove no match for the fearless resolve of youth.  But in fact, the drama had only begun.  Koepka immediately handed the lead back by making double-bogey to Mickelson’s birdie at the par-5 2nd hole, and that was just the second of five holes which produced a swing of two shots or more between the final two.  Meanwhile one group ahead, Louis Oosthuizen, having started two behind Mickelson and one back of Koepka, was motoring steadily along, seemingly ready to pounce if they both stumbled.  At least that was the case until the 13th, when an untimely double-bogey all but ended the 2010 Open Championship winner’s hopes for a second major title.

Though he showed no emotion that would prove the theory, the scores during the round indicate that it may have been Koepka, rather than Mickelson, who most felt the pressure.  A two-shot swing in his favor on the par-4 6th hole moved Koepka back into a tie, but he immediately bogeyed the 7th and fell two adrift when Mickelson birdied.  Three more bogeys on the first part of the back nine followed, after which Koepka was fighting as much for a spot high on the final leader board as for the Wanamaker Trophy.  In the end he could only complain about how on the final hole members of the huge crowd, which was of course hugely pro-Mickelson, had bumped his surgically repaired knee; a sadly typical comment from an enormously talented player who would clearly prefer to play all his golf in private.

Majors are played to their conclusion, and Phil is still Phil, so fans held their breath when he bogeyed the 13th and 14th holes.  But as was reported this week, in his dotage Mickelson has learned the value of staying in the moment and playing within himself.  He has taken up meditation, and throughout the tournament could be seen closing his eyes at length while standing behind his ball, visualizing the shot to come and not hitting until he was comfortable with his mindset.  Thinking his way around the golf course, he hit all the shots he needed to coming home, the last of which was a six-inch tap-in that made history.  It may have been a less dramatic style of play than what fans are used to from Phil, but the result was still pretty thrilling.  In fact, it would have made a good movie.

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