Obviously, Phil Mickelson knows how to do this now. He knows how to lead a major championship start to finish with pressure hanging all over him like a too-heavy topcoat. He knows how to play through weather delays and wind shifts, and how to sleep on a three-foot putt for par without letting it ruin his mind. He knows how to close out a major with a big shot on 18, and that is the best possible news for golf.
With his PGA Championship, Mickelson, 35, has turned into the player he should be. There wasn't much Mickelson didn't overcome in this over-long tournament on the 7,392-yard Baltusrol Golf Club course. The rough was deep, the fairways were narrow, the temperature was punishing and the leader board was packed. There were thunderstorms and wicked reversals: In Sunday's final round, Mickelson went from three strokes up to two strokes back, and he went to bed after the storm-shortened round with the tournament still not over, facing that three-footer for par, and four more holes on Monday. Finally, he clinched the thing with that nervy 18th hole.
"It was hard fought," Mickelson said afterward. "I think it was one of the most stressful tournaments for me because I was on the lead or at the lead or tied every night. There was an extra night thrown in there for good measure. I'm looking forward to be able to relax for a day or two."
There is no more welcome arrival in golf than that of Mickelson as a regular winner of majors. He is a strapping and charismatic player, adored by an audience with whom he genuinely connects, a rare thing in a sport that fosters remoteness. Throughout the last four holes, he was buffeted down the fairways by spontaneous waves of applause. While other players stood in the fairways still as wax figures, Mickelson radiated energy and fixed a crooked grin on his face, and if it sometimes looked forced, the message it sent was that he understood the job of pro golfer is a privileged one, even under duress.
"Be the ball, Bay-bee!" they yelled as Mickelson strode up the 18th.
"Come on Phil, drop a bird on 'em."
"Birdie, birdie, birdie, Phil. I gotta get to work."
There are legions of good players who have won one major championship. Ben Curtis, Davis Love III, Steve Jones, David Toms, Hal Sutton, Wayne Grady and Shaun Micheel, just to name a few. But there are only 74 players who have won two or more majors. It is a critical separation, as any player will tell you. Now that Mickelson has hoisted his second large trophy, you get the feeling it won't be long before he joins the even more select group of 41 players with three or more in their career. "You arrogantly think that if you won one, the rest of them are easy," Love said. "The second one is just as hard. That's why when you see a guy who has three or four or five of them, he's looked upon a little differently than the rest of the players. One major puts you in the club. But it's just in the club."
By capturing the PGA, Mickelson is now in a different club altogether -- and the manner of his victory set him apart, too. Twice now, he has won majors with birdies on the 72nd hole. Mickelson, once regarded as a somewhat soft and lazy player, is acquiring a reputation for toughness. At last year's Masters, it was an 18-foot putt to beat Ernie Els. At Baltusrol, he came to the last tee tied with Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn at 3 under par, and flat out seized the trophy from them. While his wedge will be remembered as the glamour shot, he actually hit three near-perfect shots in succession: a dead center drive, a launched 3-wood that almost reached the green before it just faded, and then that gutsy, fist-clenching chip from the heavy rough to tap-in distance.
"If there's anybody you'd back to get up-and-down from there, it's Phil Mickelson," Bjorn said. "He's not a one-major guy, he's a 10-major guy. He's going to go on now and contend for majors as he's always done, but it's going to be easier and easier for him to win them now."
Mickelson's evolution into a major champion has not been easy. In fact, it's been agonizing to watch. But it's been a valuable lesson, too; what it teaches is that you can learn to win. Winning is not just a quality some people are born with and others aren't. He was winless in his first 43 majors as a pro. A baffling 22 times, he finished among the top 10 without lifting a trophy: eight times in the Masters, seven times in the PGA, six in the U.S. Open, and once in the British Open.
Mickelson admitted on Monday, with the luxury of hindsight and with the reassuring silvery bulk of the Wanamaker Trophy sitting next to him, that he didn't manage himself well early in his career and played some foolish golf. When he watched highlights of himself, "I just think, what was I doing?"
That phase is over now. Mickelson knows what he is doing. At Baltusrol, he knew what he doing better than anyone else because he has learned how to prepare. He was here two weeks early, playing practice rounds. It was during those sessions that he and his coach, Rick Smith, came up with their game plan to sacrifice distance in favor of power fades that would stay in the fairway and take trouble out of play. Also, he consulted with the club pro, who gave him a valuable tip about the way putts tended to break. One of the things he was proudest of afterward was that, even when he missed some shots, he missed them in the right way, and in the right place. "I made four or five bogeys but each bogey was on the proper side of the hole, to where I could get up and down," he said.
That Mickelson has acquired the self-control, and self-effacement, to sacrifice distance for accuracy is an interesting development. And that he has acquired the self-confidence to will himself to a major victory is an even more interesting development. Nobody played particularly well among the leaders -- four of the top five finishers shot rounds over par, the exception being Tiger Woods, who, had he not continually stubbed his toe, might have won the tournament. Mickelson struggled with near fatal tentativeness in the middle of his own round. But in the end, the right guy won. Mickelson found an inner firmness and outplayed all of his pursuers with better decisions and better execution. To birdie the 18th in a major, as he pointed out, "You've got to make good, confident, aggressive swings."
The guess here is that now Mickelson has decided he is a real closer, he may win scads of pro majors, and give Woods some trouble in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record 18. Mickelson has now shared the 54-hole lead twice in majors. Guess what his record is? It's 2-0. "When you lead from Day One and you stand there on with the trophy in hand on Sunday, you certainly deserve to win," said Bjorn. "He's come so close for so many years, and the way he did things this week was better than the next guy."
From now on, he may be better than just about all of them.