Sports

The Total Phil Mickelson Experience

The golfer’s unprecedented PGA Championship victory, warts and all, perfectly encapsulated what has always made him so appealing.

Mickelson with his arms raised in triumph on the green, crowd going wild behind him.
Mickelson celebrates his win on the 18th green during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort on Sunday. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

To point out that 50-year-old Phil Mickelson is now the oldest major champion in golf history doesn’t do justice to the shock of what he pulled off at this year’s PGA Championship.

To say Mickelson was fading from relevance before this herculean win against the world’s best—and much younger—golfers would be understating it. In fact, entering this weekend, he was verging on afterthought status. He hadn’t finished better than 18th in a major since 2016, when he was runner-up at the Open Championship, finishing 11 shots ahead of third place but unable to catch Henrik Stenson, who beat him by three at Royal Troon in Scotland. Mickelson didn’t qualify for next month’s U.S. Open and needed a special exemption from the United States Golf Association to make the field—something that felt like charity for a once-great legend, a chance to play a marquee event in his hometown of San Diego. He’d started to play senior PGA Tour events, and it seemed like a reasonable idea for him to ditch the main tour and go make history by dominating golf’s best old guys. Maybe it didn’t come out of nowhere, but Mickelson’s win at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course emerged from far enough afield that it’s one of the best stories in golf history.

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Mickelson’s sixth (and maybe final) major victory isn’t just an all-time great golf event, though. It’s the perfect encapsulation of one of golf’s most unique careers ever, in all its brilliance and obvious imperfections. If this is the last time Mickelson thrills an American golf crowd for an entire week (and it might be), he made sure to pass down a total understanding of the Phil Mickelson experience to anyone who’d never seen it up close.

For starters, Mickelson delivered an incredible athletic feat. Today’s major fields constitute the deadliest collections of golfers to ever play the same courses at the same times. Thanks to advances in training and equipment, they hit the ball staggeringly far and can stop it on a dime. This particular PGA Championship figured to reward those sorts of heavy hitters. For one thing, Kiawah Island presented the longest layout in major history at (approximately) 7,876 yards. For another, the many perched greens scattered about the course by designer Pete Dye made it more or less impossible for players to hit short or off-target shots that would bounce onto the putting surfaces. As noted longball masher and world No. 27 Will Zalatoris put it, “There’s no faking it around this place.”

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As much as Mickelson talks about “Hitting Bombs,” the heavy-hitting profile does not suit him at this point in his career. He entered the weekend tied for 193rd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee and 50th in driving distance. But he navigated the Ocean Course expertly. The layout sits directly along the Atlantic, and the ocean wind turned many players’ rounds into nightmares. Mickelson, who has long had a soft spot for windy links courses, handled it better than most. His biggest asset all week was his high, powerful iron shots, the type of shot most subject to change direction in high winds. He gained two strokes per round on approach shots, by far his most valuable shot type. Mickelson wasn’t anything special off the tee and was more “pretty good” than great when he got near the flagstick, despite some highlights. But he did everything well enough, hit great approach shots, and refused to let the wind hurt him. Fittingly, the shot that sealed his win was a nine iron out of the left rough on the final hole:

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That he wasn’t out of the woods until the second shot on his 72nd hole of the week speaks to another essential element of the Mickelson experience: It is never easy.

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Mickelson is one of golf’s most accomplished players ever. It’s not all fair that a few blowups in high-stakes situations have attached themselves to his legacy. But he’s had some significant clunkers, most notably the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, when he led by a shot on the last hole and made double bogey to lose the championship. He’s had a handful of other near misses in majors, including a few other U.S. Opens, the one major he’s never won. When he won his first major at the Masters in 2004, the margin was one shot. Same at the 2005 PGA Championship. He’s never won a major by more than three shots. He’s never been Tiger Woods coasting to a 15-shot win at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open.

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Mickelson’s margin of victory in this tournament was two. He led by a stroke entering the final round, then fell a shot behind Brooks Koepka when he bogeyed and Koepka birdied right out of the gate. Mickelson righted the ship and Koepka faded after that, but Mickelson still let a five-shot lead become two by the last hole. And when he sliced his drive into a gallery and Koepka perfectly cut the corner on that hole’s dogleg to the right, it felt familiar. It wouldn’t have felt right for Mickelson to take anything easily with such a defining moment at hand.

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The most Mickelson-esque part of the weekend, however, was neither his high-wire act nor his handling of a challenging course. It was the support he got from the people who filled it. Mickelson has for years taken the mantle of the People’s Golfer, the player who has forged the closest bond with the galleries that pack courses wherever the world’s best players go. The loudest roars are not typically for Phil––they’re for Tiger––but a Phil roar has always been different from a Tiger roar. In their heydays, Tiger either pretended he didn’t hear the galleries that swooned for him or was legitimately too focused to notice. Phil always relished it, thumbs up–ing his way around dozens of courses a year and lingering on autograph rope lines for longer than any of his peers. (After one round at the 2018 U.S. Open, which would spawn one of Mickelson’s biggest embarrassments, I watched him sign autographs for nearly an hour.)

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Some of the galleries’ love of Mickelson probably owed to his status as the affable foil to a better but more outwardly reserved Woods. The galleries loved Woods just as much or more, but golf fans crave personal rivalry, and Mickelson helped provide one for a while. He was also the most gregarious white guy in a sport full of gregarious white guys, many of whom took playing lessons from Mickelson on DVD or YouTube.

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He is still a somewhat curious fit for the everyman role. He wears pants that cost more than most people’s rent. He once paid $1 million to the SEC after making a profit on an inside stock tip. (He wasn’t personally accused of doing anything illegal.) He may or may not have gotten a $30 million offer to play on the Saudi Arabian government’s knockoff PGA Tour, and may or may not be seriously considering it. But he has established himself as golf’s people’s champion anyway. Nobody has produced more bite-sized moments of viral joy than the old left-hander:

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So it was all week at Kiawah, but especially on Sunday. When Lefty hit a shot into the gallery on his second nine, he spent more than a minute joking with both fans and rules officials about ways he might be able to take a drop for a competitive advantage. He asked one fan if his ball in fact landed on a tee in the middle of the rough; might he be allowed to tee it up from there? When he airmailed his tee shot on the par-3 17th hole into a pile of brush beyond the green, the crowd went as wild as if he’d just drilled a hole-in-one. (He made a bogey.) Mickelson’s trip up the 18th fairway after that icy recovery shot from the left rough turned into the kind of mob scene that modern golf historically only produces when Tiger is involved. Part of it was thanks to shoddy crowd control by the course’s security team, but most of it was due to the cult of Mickelson:

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There have been better golfers than Phil Mickelson, but there haven’t been golfers who have connected with crowds the exact way he does. That was never more clear than Sunday.

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Mickelson’s win invites the possibility that he isn’t done yet. That if he can do this at 50 years and 11 months old, we can’t discount him making further history at 51 or 52. That’s right; we can’t. But just as Woods hasn’t piled more majors atop his 2019 triumph at the Masters, Mickelson probably will not make a memory quite like this again. It takes so much to burn so brightly for the right four-day stretch of golf, and the context that brought Mickelson into this week as the No. 115 ranked player in the world mostly remains in effect. Strokes-gained metrics say he was an average PGA Tour player over the past two years and much worse than that during his pre–PGA Championship 2021. Mickelson has gotten one over on Father Time, but that is never a permanent arrangement.

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And that’s OK. Mickelson’s career has been like nothing before it. His major win at the Ocean Course means he has now captivated and elated golf fans in four different decades, from the 1990s to the 2020s. He might be the last golfer to do that. At the least, he’ll be in an exclusive club. If the 2021 PGA Championship is the last time he does something incredible on a golf course, everyone who’s enjoyed his career should find peace knowing that he exited in such a fitting fashion.

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