To those who were too young to remember, or were otherwise unable to watch the famous 1986 Masters, we hope you tuned into the PGA Championship today. If you didn’t, you missed the equal of that Jack Nicklaus masterpiece. If not its better.
In a sport that has become increasingly youth-dominated, professional golf saw a win for the old guys on Sunday. Less than one month shy of his 51st birthday, PGA Tour Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson defeated an elite field, and the odds, at the 103rd PGA Championship, winning by two at Kiawah Island over Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.
First bursting onto the PGA Tour scene with a win as an amateur (still the most recent amatuer to win on Tour) at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, Mickelson’s win for for the (advanced) ages in South Carolina was the 45th of his storied career, and his sixth major championship triumph. In the process he broke the record of oldest player to win a major, previously held by Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 years of age.
To say this win at the season’s second major was unexpected would be an understatement. Mickelson’s recent game had vacillated between mediocre and outright horrific. In a stretch starting with a T71 at last August’s PGA Championship (moved from May due to the COVID-19 pandemic), a T44 at the relatively-weak Safeway Open was his only result inside the top 50. He looked better after that with a T35 at THE PLAYERS Championships, a T25 at the Honda Classic, and a T21 at The Masters among his next four starts.
In his first post-Masters start, Mickelson missed the cut at the Valspar Championship. Then, in a flash of his past brilliance, he opened the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago with a 7-under 64 to grab the first-round lead. However, that lead was quickly forgotten as he followed up that 64 with rounds of 75, 76, and 76 respectively, to finish solo-69th place.
Statistically, he had not been any better, ranking well outside the top 100 in all six strokes gained: categories, including 193rd in strokes gained: off-the-tee. Even his short game, thought to be ageless, was failing him. He had even fallen out of the top 100 of the world rankings, a position he had not seen since 1993.
Yet, with just 18 holes remaining at the PGA Championship, Mickelson was at 7-under-par, giving him a one-stroke advantage over and a date in the final Sunday pairing with 2018 and 2019 PGA Champion Brooks Koepka. And the four-time major winner (all since 2017) Koepka was far from the only elite player in the mix, all of whom would have loved to have been the Stewart Cink to Mickelson’s Tom Watson.
That lead lasted all of one hole. Mickelson opened with a bogey while Koepka birdied to take the solo-lead. One group ahead, journeyman Kevin Streelman started birdie-birdie to tie Mickelson at 6-under. A 42-year-old with two career Tour victories, Streelman was searching for his first top-10 in a major, something Mickelson has done 39 times, and 10 times at the PGA Championship alone.
Mickelson got his lead back just one hole later, carding a birdie on the par-5 second, while Koepka netted a surprising double-bogey. Koepka had been dominant on the par-5s over the first three rounds, but trouble in that regard on Sunday would become a theme. Koepka matched Phil after another two-shot swing on the 6th, but Phil would never again relinquish the lead. The two Tour stars had the same result on just seven of 18 holes.
Prior to that two-shot swing, Mickelson hit his shot of the tournament on the par-3 5th. Hitting a poor tee shot into a greenside bunker, he holed out for birdie and a second two-shot lead. With copious fans in attendance for the first time in a major since before the pandemic, Phil had the unquestioned support of the masses.
A two-shot advantage at the turn quickly turned into four when Mickelson birdied 10, while Koepka and Oosthuizen both bogeyed. It would be the start of a four-hole implosion for Koepka. Mickelson briefly had the lead all the way to five when Oosthuizen double-bogeyed the par-4 13th, the toughest hole on the course, to drop to 3-under.
Mickelson only fared marginally better on 13, hitting his approach into the water from the fairway, and did well to even save bogey. Just as it looked like the tournament was nearly over, Phil added another bogey on 14, while both Koepka and Oosthuizen were able to stop the bleeding on their fading chances. Oosthuizen, looking for his first major win since a seven-stroke romp at the 2010 Open Championship, birdied 16. Koepka birdied 15 and 16 to re-assert himself as a threat. Mickelson too, birdied 16, with much credit to a mammoth 366-yard drive, but gave that stroke back on the par-3 17th. Heading to 18, Mickelson’s lead was down to two, far from safe given the circumstances.
The pressure of the moment did not phase Phil, as a solid drive into the first cut of rough was followed by an immaculate approach to 16 feet, which effectively closed the door. Mickelson was absolutely mobbed by the raucous crowd; a scene which shocked even Phil. Koepka got caught in the mob too, stating that his recently-injured knee, which required surgery just two months ago, got hit several times.
Mickelson nearly holed his birdie putt, before tapping-in for par, and history. The tournament was won by easily the most popular man in the field. It was an unforgettable performance for someone who most believed would never seriously contend on the major stage again.
Phil’s Sunday tally was a 1-over 73 that was better than it sounds. Oosthuizen matched that 73 for his fifth career major runner-up, giving him two at the PGA Championship along with one a piece in the other three majors. All five of those second-places have come since his 2010 Open Championship victory.
Koepka shot a 74 for his third career major runner-up, and his ridiculous 10th finish of 7th or better in his last 14 major starts.
Before this week, more and more people were resigned to Phil entering more Champions Tour events, where he has already made three starts in the past year, a lead-in to his inevitable path to being a full-time commentator. Now, it looks like his first career may have considerable life yet.
Top-10 Leaders: Round 4
Pos-Player-To Par (Rd 4)
1. Phil Mickelson -6 (+1)
2. Brooks Koepka -4 (+2)
2. Louis Oosthuizen -4 (+1)
4. Padraig Harrington -2 (-3)
4. Shane Lowry -2 (-3)
4. Harry Higgs -2 (-2)
4. Paul Casey -2 (-1)
8. Abraham Ancer -1 (-7)
8. Justin Rose -1 (-5)
8. Collin Morikawa -1 (-4)
8. Jon Rahm -1 (-4)
8. Collin Morikawa -1 (-4)
8. Will Zalatoris -1 (-2)
8. Scottie Scheffler -1 (-2)
8. Tony Finau -1 (-1)
8. Rickie Fowler -1 (-1)
8. Kevin Streelman -1 (+3)
T17 – Patrick Reed, Keegan Bradley, Sungjae Im, Corey Conners E
T23 – Hideki Matsuyama, Billy Horschel, Patrick Cantlay +1
T30 – Stewart Cink, Viktor Hovland, Webb Simpson, Ian Poulter, Jordan Spieth +2
T38 – Tyrrell Hatton, Gary Woodland, Bryson DeChambeau +3
T44 – Jason Day, Steve Stricker +4
T49 – Rory McIlroy +5
T59 – Cameron Smith +7
T64 – Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, Danny Willett +8
T71 – Lee Westwood +9
T75 – Daniel Berger +10
80 – Bubba Watson +14
How Phil Mickelson Won the PGA Championship
Mickelson avoided big mistakes, with just one hole of worse than bogey for the week, but did not necessarily do great avoiding mistakes entirely, ranking 107th in the field in bogeys total. However, he led the field in birdies with 22, carding at least five each day.
His best work was with his irons, ranking fifth in the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green and first in strokes gained: tee-to-green. Nothing was really off for him though, as he consistently put himself into good positions with his drives, which had been his achilles heel in recent years. Statistically, he did not scramble well, but put himself in few positions where he needed to scramble. He stated that focus has been an issue lately. That did not appear to be anything resembling a problem this week.
Mickelson’s 2021 PGA Championship Stats
Driving: 313.1 yards (15th)
Fairways: 31/56, 55.5% (58th)
Greens: 46/72, 63.9% (12th)
Putts/GIR: 1.652 (3rd)
Scores: 22 Birdies, 35 Pars, 14 Bogeys, 1 Double
What Winning a 6th Major Means For Phil
Mickelson came into the week ranked 115th in the OWGR, making him the first major winner outside the top 100 since Keegan Bradley (108th) won this same event in 2011. It was the fifth worst ranking for a major champion ever. Of those 114 people ahead of him, just three were not in the field at Kiawah Island this week. The win jumped him all the way up to 32nd.
Already having played in 12 Ryder Cups for the U.S., it appeared Phil was finished on that stage, at least as a player, but this victory moved him from 52nd to 16th on the American Ryder Cup standings, with his vast experience making him a good candidate for a captain’s pick if he is unable to land in the top 8 and qualify automatically.
Just a U.S. Open win short of becoming the sixth player to accomplish the career grand slam, this gives Phil considerable momentum going into next month’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, near his home town of San Diego. Originally, he had not qualified, but had been given a special exemption, which he hesitated to accept. Now, he qualifies again on his own merits, in addition to the following four U.S. Opens. He has finished runner-up a the U.S. Open an agonizing six times.
Mickelson’s 2020-21 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 8
Wins: 1 (PGA Championship)
Top 10s: 0
Money: $2,324,508 (35th)
Points: 727 (44th)
OWGR Before/After: 116th/32nd
The tremendous performance of 49-year-old Padraig Harrington was a bit overshadowed by Mickelson, as the European Captain for the upcoming Ryder Cup shot a 3-under 69 on Sunday to finish T4, his first top-10 in a major since 2012.
Ranked 257th coming into the week (now 141st), Harrington eagled the second hole to get himself on the first page of the leaderboard early. He was fourth in the field in strokes gained: around-the-green.
Sunday’s lowest score came from a man who looks more than ready to be done with all the “close calls”. Mexico’s Abraham Ancer went out early and shot a bogey-free 7-under 65, the low round in the field for the entire week. He rocketed 50 spots up the final leaderboard, from T58 to T8, his third consecutive top 10 finish and ninth straight finish of T26 or better.
A star for the International team at the most recent Presidents Cup, the 30-year-old is still looking for his first career victory.
Justin Rose exploded in the first round of last month’s Masters tournament, taking an early three-shot lead. This week, he saved his best for last, shooting a 5-under that moved him 37 spots up the leaderboard, from T45 to T8, his third top 10 in his last four major starts.
For his career, the 40-year-old Brit has just one victory in a major (2013 U.S. Open), but 10 top-5s amond 19 top-10s. Rose shot that 67 despite a bogey and a double-bogey in a three hole-stretch on the back nine. He led the field for the week in strokes gained: putting.
The variable conditions this week at the Ocean Course were especially difficult for reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who bogeyed five of his first six back-nine holes, leading to a 5-over 77 the plummeted him from T7 to T38.
Despite the poor final round, Dechambeau actually rose in the world rankings from 5th to a career-tying best 4th. He hit just four fairways on Sunday.
Matching DeChambeau’s 77 and his 31 spot drop to T38 was another recent U.S. Open Champion, Gary Woodland. Woodland got into the leader mix early with birdies on 2 and 3, but imploded over the final 12 holes, with three bogeys and two double-bogeys, with both doubles surprisingly coming on par-5s. He had five double-bogeys over his two weekend rounds.
Jordan Spieth came into the week red-hot and was among the betting favorites at Kiawah Island, where he could have achieved the career grand slam with a win. He was at even-par through three rounds, giving him at least a prayer on Sunday, but he never got comfortable, shooting a 2-over 74 to fall from T13 to T30.
Spieth will hope to not be too deflated by the effort, which came off the heels of four consecutive top 10s on Tour, including a win at the Valero Texas Open where he snapped a four-year winning drought.
“So, it’s very possible that this is the last tournament I even win. Like, if I’m being realistic. It’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I got on a little bit of a run, I don’t know. But the point is that there’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.”
– Phil Mickelson, PGA Championship Winner