In the 208 men’s golf majors since, nobody has won from an age surpassing that of the late three-major-winner Boros. Tom Watson’s approach to No. 18 at Turnberry at the 2009 British Open at 59 forever will roll inexplicably and cruelly through the green to the downslope, and his face during the ensuing playoff forever will look 20 years older than his face on the 72 holes preceding. A 53-year-old Greg Norman led the 2008 British Open after three rounds before a 77 next to Padraig Harrington’s 72, and a 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus tied for sixth with a closing 68 at the 1998 Masters, in a matter people just don’t discuss enough.
Well, clear into 2021, from the Ocean Course and its indefatigable winds, here’s a word: Phil.
It’s a word that popped up for real in the midday of Friday, a word that, like Rihanna, Madonna or Charo, requires no elaboration around tee boxes and flagsticks. At age almost-51, Phil — Mickelson, if we must — has been keeping it straight in front of him and elongating his focus, excelling at focus-elongation. “I’m just making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus,” he said.
He spoke — briefly — after making five birdies on his closing nine (the front), shooting a 69 to follow a 70 of Thursday, rising to the midafternoon summit of the leader board at 5 under par. Hours later, he wound up tied with 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen atop a chart stacked with contenders and with might, from the ominous name of majors master Brooks Koepka (4 under) to reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama (3 under) to reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau (1 under) to defending PGA champion Collin Morikawa (1 over). Into the mix, Mickelson threw a long-view fascination into this 103rd PGA Championship as it headed for the weekend. Can somebody older than 48 years, 4 months and 18 days finally do it?
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” said Harrington, his playing partner, the 2008 champion and a three-time major winner, speaking of Mickelson spending Sunday in thick contention.
“If he can keep it straight and hit it the way that he’s been hitting, he’s going to be around on Sunday for sure,” said Jason Day, the other playing partner and the 2015 PGA champion.
Asked to explain how he followed an opening 38 with a closing 32 on Thursday and an opening 38 with a closing 31 on Friday, playing the nines in the customary different orders, Mickelson said, “I don’t know if I have a great answer for that.”
It has been a while and a half since Mickelson and Henrik Stenson surged ahead of the field like two champion rival horses at the 2016 British Open, then treated the patrons at Troon to a glistening Sunday on which Mickelson shot a wow of a 65 while Stenson shot a double-wow of a 63 to win by three, with Mickelson 11 shots ahead of the rest. From there, Mickelson has played 16 majors without any kind of contention that would interrupt sleep.
In that time, while appearing at events mostly as some sort of sun-drenched hood ornament drinking in adoration from galleries, Mickelson has lived one of the oddities of sport — how, after a point, being older doesn’t seem to mean being calmer. As Harrington put it, “Unfortunately as you gain experience, you lose innocence,” describing “myself and Phil” as having “some scar tissue in there, and we can overthink things at times.”
Said Mickelson: “I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot. Physically, I feel like I’m able to perform and hit the shots that I’ve hit throughout my career, and I feel like I can do it every bit as well as I have, but I’ve got to have that clear picture and focus.”
Thus, the elongation aspiration, fulfilled so far in his ability to “not let a couple of the poor shots or poor strokes affect the overall round, which is something I haven’t been doing as well, certainly not as well as I’ve been doing the last two days.”
In the gorgeous brutality here, he has proved the kind of patient old codger a course such as this can reward.
“I’ve driven it well, but I think the thing I’ve done the best is my brother, Tim, and I have done a really good job of judging the wind, judging the flight and picking clubs with the right flight to get the right distance, and so we’ve hit a lot of iron shots pin-high,” he said.
“Yeah, there were no foul balls,” Day said. “Usually with Phil you can get some pretty wide ones, and he kept it straight out in front of him. And his iron play was pretty tight. There was a lot of quality iron shots into the greens. When he was out of position, he just kind of — you know Phil, get up and down.”
And then said Harrington: “He has the bit between his teeth. He believes he can do it in these conditions, just like myself. I think, like myself, Phil would find it easier to compete on this style of golf course in these conditions in a major tournament all the time. You can be patient in these courses, and obviously you’ve got to make a few birdies, but it suits somebody who is a player, somebody who is thinking.”
Eventually Harrington the golf analyst turned Harrington the philosopher and said of aging: “You know, the disappointment for me now, and this really sums up how the game changes and ebbs and flows: In 2008, it was inevitable I was going to win majors, so it didn’t bother me if I didn’t have a good day. I knew I just had to turn up, play my game, and that would put me in position to win majors and it would happen. Now I turn up at a tournament and I think everything has to go right. I’m afraid that I can’t — I can’t take as many punches. I can’t take as many mistakes. I feel on edge to compete.”
With all the wide array of bits of baggage, Phil will spend the weekend as a middle-aged man trying to strike a marvelous blow for re-energized, Dad-bodded, elongation-minded, galumphing fathers of three.