Truth is stranger than fiction.
An epic 103rd US PGA Championship in South Carolina could not have produced a more outrageous finale if the wonderfully theatrical Phil Mickelson – aged 50 years, 11 months and seven days – and playing with the adventure, agility and self-assured gait of a teenager, had holed the winning putt from the jaws of a Kiawah Island alligator.
Ranked a wholly misleading 115 in the world, Mickelson became the oldest and boldest winner of a major golf tournament in history – and the first man in their sixth decade to achieve the feat – with a performance full of youthful exuberance that belied his nonsensical pre-tournament odds of 280-1.
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Even when he held the lead at the halfway stage at five under on Friday alongside the 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, he was still rated a 100-1 long shot to get the job done.
“It was like the Phil that I remember watching just when I turned pro and it was great to see,” commented the likeable Louis.
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Phil Mickelson celebrates his sixth major success at Kiawah Island.
Image credit: Eurosport
Even when he stood on the first tee alongside the booming ball striker Brooks Koepka – a four-times major holder who was born a month before Lefty made his US Open debut as an amateur in 1990 – at half past two in the final group on Sunday afternoon, he was still second favourite behind his sturdy but less animated playing partner, who had lifted the Wanamaker Trophy in two of the previous three years.
In his wildest dreams, Mickelson could never have scripted such a remarkable sequence of events having failed to finish inside the top 20 of a tournament this year.
He concluded his magical mystery tour with a one over 73 to finish on six under after glistening earlier efforts of 70, 69 and 70.
He won comfortably by two strokes ahead of Koepka and Oosthuizen in a rousing tactical triumph for in-game management, helped by brother Tim on his bag, and the ability to know when and where to hit greens. And where was wise to miss them.
'REALLY COOL TO SEE'
And most poignantly, when to engage his unique momentum-shifting genius by chipping in from the sand for a birdie on the par-3 fifth to alter the direction of travel.
“I mean, I hope I'm still playing at 50,” said Koepka, who performed admirably to finish on four under after undergoing knee surgery in March.
But to be able to come out and compete and actually win, that's a whole another thing, so kudos to him. It was really cool to see.
The final group exchanged friendly fire and misfire with a wild ride of 16 pars, 10 bogeys, nine birdies and one double bogey between them, but Lefty won the stroke play contest by a stroke to double his lead from the start of the day.
Thumbs up for the daring Lefty is quite a movement with several thousand fans roaring their approval.
'NEVER BACK DOWN'
Mickelson’s victory was against all odds and convention yet somehow oddly predictable in the final analysis as the slimmed down dynamo from San Diego reduced the world’s longest and arguably most unforgiving track at 7,876 yards – designed devilishly by Pete Dye for the 1991 Ryder Cup matches – to a conundrum that could only be solved by his own particular set of skills while his mum sent frantic text messages to his sister Lisa urging caution.
The European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington finished in a share of fourth place alongside Shane Lowry on two under and was not surprised by Mickelson's success story having witnessed him close up in the first two rounds.
"Phil will never back down. That is his attitude," said Harrington. "He insists on hitting each shot and going for it. For a player to stand there and watch him do it..I also saw that with Tom Watson.
"It was startling how he took every shot on looking like there was no consequences."
When you studied his approach over the 72 holes, it all made perfect sense as some immaculate driving, clever iron play and a heavenly short game with more options than the Nasdaq saw him in control of his swing and senses as younger minds wilted under the beating sun, probing pin positions and wind-tossed sands of the exacting Ocean Course.
Meditation more than technical excellence was key to the success with less talk and more action. Mind over matter was always at the forefront of his thoughts in his quest to usurp Julius Boros, suddenly the second oldest man to cart off a major aged 48 years at the 1968 PGA in Texas.
Mickelson deserved his greatest day since turning professional in 1992, altering the accepted wisdom of possibilities for golfers in their sunset years. It came 12 years after 59-year-old Tom Watson missed an eight footer on the 72nd hole to claim a sixth Open title at Turnberry in 2009.
There was no near miss for the generation game this time with Mickelson’s victory his first top-10 finish at a major since his epic duel with Henrik Stenson at the 2016 Open, finally claimed by the Swedish player by three strokes with a record low total of 264 around Royal Troon.
'LIFE IS GOOD'
While Mickelson was last night sipping on wine and stating “life is good” on social media, perhaps listening to some zen spa music after reaching the zenith, millions of exhausted sports enthusiasts around the world were still drinking in the moment.
‘Did that actually happen?’ was the question most were asking after an utterly barmy few hours when the scenes walking up the 18th reminded you of the Brad Pitt zombie movie Word War Z with diehards losing their muzzles and heads to rejoice in Lefty’s second coming during the pandemic, a rebirth of a true legend, as they scrambled up trees and fought for space to glimpse one of professional sport’s finest performers at the peak of his powers.
He was fortunate to make the scorer’s tent such was the outpouring of elation with Koepka, the younger man by almost 20 years, left lamenting the threat to his dodgy knee. Chaotic happenings indeed.
“Phil defeats Father Time,” was how the broadcaster Jim Nantz wonderfully described the winning moment. But he also defeated inner doubt. Age is but a number if the ability remains intact and the scar tissue is not allowed to clog the mind from past disappointment.
While this will be recalled inside the top 10 greatest golf moments of all time, part of wider sporting immortality as Mickelson enhanced his remarkable body of work of three Masters, two US PGAs and an Open Championship over the past 17 years, it should also be a celebration of the power and energy which positive thinking can bring to the human condition.
He has won 45 PGA events and earned $93.66 million, but has also been forced to accept some despairing blows in his public and private life to stay focused, including his wife Amy’s battle with breast cancer in 2009 that forced him to suspend his career.
Mickelson made some poignant comments about his need to accept failure as part of a wider cathartic experience in life. It is a powerful message in which he claimed learning to lose was a key life lesson, a process and a pathway to an improved state of mind. You can't win in life unless you accept losing was the substance.
'STILL IN SHOCK'
When he competed the 72nd hole at the US Open around Winged Foot in 2006, he needed smelling salts after a wounded drive and some dreadful decision-making.
Holding a one-stroke lead on the final tee, he pursued par for victory but ended up limping home in distress with a double bogey six seeing him snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with Geoff Ogilvy gratefully accepting the trophy.
"I'm still in shock. I still can't believe I did that,” he said. "This one hurts more than any tournament because I had it won.
I just can't believe I did that. I'm such an idiot.
In hindsight, such moments provide an insight into the importance of positive thinking rather than wallowing in self-loathing. Not just in golf, but in daily life. Failure is a part of the journey.
“I’ve failed many times in my life and career and because of this I’ve learned a lot,” he said earlier this month.
Instead of feeling defeated countless times, I’ve used it as fuel to drive me to work harder. So today, join me in accepting our failures. Let’s use them to motivate us to work even harder.
Only the record 18-times major winner Jack Nicklaus with 19 runner-up spots has finished second time more times than Mickelson since the first major was contested in 1860, but nobody recalls Jack failing so many times. Is second place in golf really failure?
Image credit: Getty Images
Mickelson has finished runner-up a remarkable 11 times in the majors, six at the US Open, an event he will try to conquer at Torrey Pines a day after he turns 51 on 16 June when the season's third major begins.
If can he claim a seventh major title, he would join fellow icons Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player as the sixth man to complete the sport’s career grand slam.
Lefty’s legacy has already been enshrined by his ability to conquer new horizons with a natural attacking style and elan rarely witnessed elsewhere in modern sport.
“This is just an incredible feeling because I just believed that it was possible, but yet everything was saying it wasn’t,” he said. “I hope that others find that inspiration.
It might take a little extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh is it worth it in the end, and I’m so appreciative to be holding this Wanamaker Trophy.
Phil Mickelson is the people’s champion, a fabulous, fearless entertainer in the Arnold Palmer mould who loves fans and is an honest character who can mesmerise a crowd on a golf course like Frank Sinatra in a concert hall back in the day. He will be hoping to enjoy more comebacks than Sinatra with a playing appearance at the Ryder Cup in September a certainty. Imagine this manic magic show descending upon Whistling Straits?
“It’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win. Like if I’m being realistic,” he concluded.
But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run.
At the 456th time of asking, a man in his fifties is a major champion, but it is not outlandish to imagine further glories for Lefty after the far-fetched week that was at Kiawah. He is simply too good to retreat.
As Sinatra, the oldest swinger in town almost crooned, if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.
Phil the Thrill: Key stats from Mickelson's historic triumph
- Claimed a sixth major championship, tying him with Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino for 12th on the all-time men’s list.
- Claimed a 45th PGA Tour victory, tying him with Walter Hagen for eighth on the all-time win list.
- Became the fourth player in PGA Tour history to win a tournament in four different decades (joining Sam Snead, Raymond Floyd and Davis Love III).Became the third player to win a PGA Tour event after previously winning a PGA Tour Champions event (joining Craig Stadler and Fred Funk).
- Became the lowest player in the World Ranking (115th) to win a major since Shaun Micheel at the 2003 PGA Championship (169th).
- Earned the biggest paycheck ($2.16 million) of his 30-year PGA Tour career (previous biggest earnings was $1.7 million for his win at the 2018 WGC-Mexico).
- Saw his PGA Tour career earnings rise to $93.66 million. He's the only golfer other than Tiger Woods to have broken the $90 million career earning mark on tour.
- Has gone the longest time between wins of any multiple PGA Championship winner, having claimed his first title in 2005.
- Became the first player on the PGA Tour to have won a tournament 30 years after claiming his first tour victory.
- Earned an exemption into the U.S. Open through 2025.
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