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Phil Mickelson, 50 and glowing, wins PGA Championship to become oldest men’s major winner

Phil Mickelson holds up the Wanamaker Trophy Sunday after winning the 2021 PGA Championship and becoming the oldest player to win a major tournament. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Crowd noise, the cherished offshoot of sports so lacking these past 15 wretched months, made perhaps its most resounding return of the whole pandemic Sunday by the Atlantic. It boomed up and down the ocean shore and energized a crowd that pierced thin security and ringed the 18th green. It soundtracked something every soul could understand — a public bucking of a louse known as the aging process.

Some 161 years and 456 turns into the habit of major men’s golf tournaments, the four prized events had both their oldest winner and a winner with a popularity beyond long-standing. At 50 years, 11 months and seven days, numbers the golf geeks might even be able to recite from here, Phil Mickelson actually won the 103rd PGA Championship on Sunday. He won with much Mickelsonian excellence and mild Mickelsonian drama, holding a five-shot lead just after the turn, winning the understandable battle with himself, playing the last four holes at even par, finishing with a 73 on a spiteful course with fiendish winds and besting by two shots Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen and a field full of men with ages not all that far from Mickelson’s offspring.

“It’s certainly one of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life,” Mickelson said after he scaled further up the leader board of golf history, tying Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo at six major titles among merely 14 souls with that number or more. “I don’t know how to describe the feeling of excitement, fulfillment and accomplishment to do something of this magnitude when very few people thought that I could.”

For an eon or two, Julius Boros’s age in July 1968 — 48 years, 4 months, 18 days — had turned up in golf story after golf story as a hallmark of longevity he achieved at the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio at Pecan Valley Golf Club, a course that in January 2012 went dormant. Now came Mickelson with something so reassuring that his brother and caddie, Tim Mickelson, said, “I definitely teared up for the first time since caddying for him.”

For his first major title since his rousing back nine closed the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, which nudged him past golfers such as Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson at five majors, Mickelson stayed up while all others faded, with the highlight a bunker shot at No. 5 that bounced twice, rolled sweetly and dunked obediently into the hole for birdie. Hours later, he whacked one from the primary rough through an alley of fans to the 18th green to safety 16 feet from the hole as bedlam turned into greater bedlam.

“I just had to work harder physically to be able to practice as much as I want to,” Mickelson said by way of explanation, soon adding: “I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. It just took a little more effort.”

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The sprawling span of his career piled noise upon the noise and meaning upon the feat. Well into the year 2021, here was someone who first appeared on the tour during the Reagan administration at age 18 at the 1988 Shearson Lehman Hutton Andy Williams Open (74-71, cut). Here was someone who alighted in the majors at the 1990 U.S. Open, won by Hale Irwin, that versatile athlete aged 75 these days. Here was someone who won as an amateur in Tucson in 1991 at something called the Northern Telecom Open.

It has gone on for so long that Mickelson has been known for promise (early 1990s), for failed promise in majors (early 2000s), for restored promise in majors (five between 2004 and 2013) and for faded relevance (thereafter). He has won twice in recent years — on the Champions Tour, that one for brilliant geezers.

Fourth-ranked Collin Morikawa, the 2020 PGA champion still a disarming 24, finished his closing round of 68 (1 under par for the tournament) and called Mickelson “a guy I’ve watched my entire life.” When Morikawa joined the world in 1997, Mickelson had nine PGA Tour titles already. Jon Rahm, the third-ranked player at 26, finished his closing 68 (1 under all told) and said, “I mean, he’s been on tour as long as I’ve been alive.” When Rahm joined the world, Mickelson had four PGA Tour titles already. Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner who won here in 2012, finished his tournament at 5 over par and couldn’t pinpoint his first Mickelson memory, drawing laughs when he said, “I can’t remember because I was probably focusing so much on Tiger [Woods].”

That old Woods-Mickelson count stands at a lopsided 15-6, but the “6” has a fresh glow.

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That “6” and all its giddy connotation looked distant and blurry when the round began in midafternoon. Mickelson led by a teetering one over Brooks Koepka, that master of majors who had a glaring chance to make it an astounding five of his past 14. Then the astounding came in another direction.

In a front nine of carnival golf, Mickelson and Koepka yo-yoed about, treating the electronic scoreboards to multi-shot swings on four of their first seven holes. Koepka led after No. 1. Mickelson led after No. 2. They stood tied after No. 6, when Tim Mickelson said to his brother, “If you’re going to win this thing, you’re going to have to make committed golf swings.” Mickelson led by two after No. 7. Nobody could tell what was happening all told, adding to the benefit of concessions having reopened so as to distribute tall beers.

Suddenly, for the astounding within the astounding, Koepka started playing par-5s as if he didn’t know how, when his first three days — two eagles, five birdies, five pars — reiterated he most certainly does. He kept using them to take varied tours of rough, perhaps a reminder he remains two months and one week off knee surgery. When he double-bogeyed No. 2 and bogeyed No. 7 with a fine save on the latter while Mickelson birdied both, those two holes had produced one five-shot swing.

Somehow Mickelson led by just two at the turn, even factoring in the fifth-hole bunker magic.

Yet by the time he sent this further piece of art 163 yards to 12 feet at the No. 10 green and when he proceeded to drain that birdie putt, he stood at 8 under par, and his lead ballooned. Nobody could chase hard through the belligerent winds.

“The thing is, Phil played great,” Koepka said.

Koepka often looked like somebody other than Koepka, venturing to wretched corners of the course. He shot a 74. Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion whose career in majors has shone, got to 5 under par at No. 12, within three, but loosed a double bogey upon No. 13, hurling him to five back. Names unseen all week, such as 2019 British Open champion Shane Lowry and Rickie Fowler, began to turn up on the leader board as if having swum in from the Atlantic, what with 2 under par suddenly good for third place.

Mickelson was in the clear. Then he wasn’t quite, when the approach at No. 13 decided it wanted to explore the marsh off the green wall and a seven-foot par putt at No. 14 carried the distinct aura of encroaching death. “I just really tried to stay calm,” he said.

Then his drive on No. 15 zoomed 337 yards straight down the fairway, and his birdie at the par-5 No. 16 looked easy from a foot and a half, and his bogey on No. 17 didn’t matter, and his walk up No. 18 became something else altogether.

— Chuck Culpepper

Read below for more coverage of the PGA Championship’s final round