Phil Mickelson has always been more animated by numbers than words — scores, sponsorships, stock prices, the Saudi riyal’s exchange rate — but this weekend at Kiawah Island, Mickelson will test playwright David Mamet’s famous observation that old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.
After completing his second round at the PGA Championship, Mickelson found himself in a familiar if not recent position: atop the leaderboard in a major championship. In this data-driven era, there are a glut of numbers that seem to mitigate against his adding a sixth major title to his résumé in the gloaming of his career.
Mickelson turns 51 next month, already three years past the oldest-ever benchmark among major champions. He’s fallen south to 115th in the world ranking, a milepost he last saw when headed north almost 30 years ago. He’s two years, three months and 10 days removed from his last win on the PGA Tour. Almost eight years have passed since his last major victory, nearly five since he even contended or cracked the top 10 in one. He’s 292 days and 17 starts — 16 on the PGA Tour, one in Saudi Arabia — since his last top 10.
But, still …
Mickelson triumphed in the 87th playing of the PGA Championship back in 2005 at Baltusrol and was last a factor in the 96th edition at Valhalla in 2014. But this 103rd PGA is being contested on a golf course where numbers—at least those heretofore noted—lose real meaning.
While it’s true that Mickelson has shown poor form for two years, and that his days as a major contender seemed to have dissolved as if in acid, it’s no less true that he has competed mostly at venues that no longer accentuate his most potent assets. Until now.
Firm, oceanfront courses are golf’s most pitiless inquisitors, the medieval rack upon which men are stretched until the breaking point is revealed, be it physical or psychological. These are not merely tests of execution — even the most banal design can be set up to exact a pound of flesh — but are examinations of imagination and fortitude too.
PGA Championship: Leaderboard | Photos | How to watch
Pete Dye’s Ocean Course at Kiawah Island doesn’t evoke the linksland of the British Isles in any genuine sense — forced carries and hazards fronting or behind greens are features alien to the ground game over there — but it’s proving a damned good facsimile of the mental demands that are the heart of links golf.
Chief among those are savvy and stoicism, the combination of being able to adjust one’s strategy and shotmaking to shifting circumstances, and accepting that excellent shots often get a crummy result when buffeted by the breeze or redirected hither and yon by the contours. Those attributes come to the fore with age, when power ceases to be the weapon of first resort in a man’s arsenal. Those characteristics are why Tom Watson came excruciatingly close to winning a sixth Open Championship a few weeks shy of his 60th birthday.
They might also be the gifts that keep Mickelson in the mix at this PGA Championship.
It’s clear that Mickelson understands the test this weekend, and that it is only partly focused on the shots he hits. “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,” he said Friday. “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.”
There are skills that time erodes at the highest level of professional golf, like distance, nerve endings, confidence with the shortest club. But golf courses like this can reward what a man has accumulated with age. Mickelson is feral and innately an oddsmaker. He knows no one is going to overpower The Ocean Course in the manner Rory McIlroy did on the weekend nine years ago. That places greater value on the skills he brings to this table: experience, guile and scar tissue that has healed and hardened into more of an advantage than a weakness.
Like he said, his mind is a muscle.
Another wily veteran sees it in him. “I think he has the bit between his teeth. I think he believes he can do it in these conditions,” said Padraig Harrington, who played alongside Mickelson for the first two days and who has himself outperformed expectations at age 49. “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 on these courses, and obviously, you’ve got to make a few birdies, but it suits somebody who is a player, somebody who is thinking.”
The decade of near-misses that defined his early career taught Mickelson that few competitors leave majors without bruising, including sometimes the man holding the trophy. This game has already hurt him, so he’s unlikely to shrink from the prospect of another gut punch. And while fans will wonder if this is his last tilt at a big title, I’d wager Mickelson himself doesn’t think so. That’s why he’s Phil Mickelson, and we’re not.
In the last couple years, Mickelson has probably thought about his legacy, about his prospects of adding to it, about the appeal of cashing it in with the Saudis. Those considerations will be set aside. The next 48 hours are about the here and now, about sealing the only deal that matters to one of the game’s greatest competitors.