KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Perhaps Phil Mickelson‘s ability on a golf course, the body of work he has established over more than three decades in the public eye, have gotten lost or diminished the past few years. That is why this PGA Championship, so unlikely because it made him the oldest major champion ever at age 50, means so much.
He hadn’t won since 2019 at Pebble Beach, hadn’t lifted a major championship trophy since 2013 at Muirfield. Since September, he missed six cuts. In the eight in which he was around for the weekend, he never once finished in the top 20. He had fallen outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He started needing special exemptions just to get a spot in major championship fields.
Hey, other greats have gone through slumps — Tiger Woods went five years between wins and 11 between majors. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, once destined to be their generation’s Tiger and Phil, haven’t picked up a big one in seven and four years, respectively. It happens. Golf ain’t easy.
“The difficulty is when you’re on a plateau and you’re not really making advancements and you’re putting in the work and putting in the work and you’re not seeing the results, to stay consistent and to stay committed,” Mickelson, 50, said on the eve of last month’s Masters, one of the few times lately he has sat to answer questions, to really reflect on where he was, where he is and where he wants to go.
Sure, he has aged, and it’s hard enough to win when the talent pool is this deep when you are in your 30s, never mind in your 40s and now, according to golf, in your senior years. Which is why he has talked increasingly about more time on the PGA Tour Champions, playing events with the 50-and-older crowd.
But it is probably the other stuff that distracted us. The past few years, maybe in his effort to remain relevant, Mickelson became something else.
He was more personality than player.
He talked endlessly about his calves.
He tried weird diets.
He talked about, then produced, his own special blend of coffee. He showed up on practice ranges with a personalized cup with his logo on it. On Saturday, as he warmed up on the practice range with all eyes on him, someone in his team, knowingly or not, turned that cup around so that the logo was facing the cameras.
He played golf in long-sleeved shirts. Then he made commercials where he danced in those shirts.
He endlessly talked about “hitting bombs.”
He told New Yorkers he was going to set a thumbs-up record at this event in 2019.
He started wearing those sunglasses.
He began talking about “elongating his focus” and using his brain as a muscle.
He became more personality than player.
So maybe this moment along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a diabolical yet picture-perfect Ocean Course where pretty much no one on the planet figured he could contend, he reminded us about all we’ve seen and all he’s done over a Hall of Fame career.
He is golf’s ultimate escape artist, like watching David Blaine wiggle free from a buried lie in the sand.
“It’s Phil, right?” Spieth said. “It’s theater.”
He is now the oldest major champion ever after this thrill ride at Kiawah Island, a four-day microcosm of what it is has been like to watch Phil Mickelson play golf all these years. There were ups and downs, amazing shots that led to improbable eagles and birdies and more than one what-in-the-world-is-he-doing mistake.
Because of timing, Mickelson will forever be linked to Woods. They were there, the two names at the top of the marquee in this sport for so long. In 2019, Woods had his moment in the fading sun of his career, improbably, memorably, winning the Masters after so many, including the man himself, thought he was done.
On Sunday, staring at golf’s Terminator, Brooks Koepka, Mickelson recorded a major championship that history will never forget, no matter how many times in the next decade he talks about his calves and bombs and coffee and whatever else he thinks of next.
This was our reminder of what Phil Mickelson could do with a golf club in his hand. He has always had the ability to hit shots few others could pull off — check that, that few others would even try to pull off.
“He’s still Phil Mickelson to me,” Cameron Smith said earlier this week.
This is win No. 45, major championship No. 6. It was, without question, the most surprising of any of them. It was a history lesson. Beneath all that he has become, the strange Phil Mickelson experience these past couple of years, lies one of the two greatest players of this generation and one of the all-time figures in this sport.
“The greatest feeling of accomplishment I think was winning the British Open in 2013 because it wasn’t really a style of golf that was suited to my game,” he said last month.
Well, that memory is now replaced by this historic moment.
Tiger had his two years ago at Augusta National, an indelible week that showed he could still play, proved to his children he was more than a YouTube golfer whose greatness could only be seen through archived footage.
Mickelson now has his, a forever reminder — to him, to us — of just how good he was, and is, for all this time.