In front of howling, euphoric fans in this opulent corner of South Carolina, Phil Mickelson strode into the record books. At 50 years of age, Mickelson became the oldest major winner of all time. It was fitting that galleries, who pulled vehemently for Mickelson, were back in full force to witness the making of history. They mobbed the champion as he played his final hole.
Nothing in golf’s modern era will surpass Tiger Woods’s 2019 Masters triumph but Mickelson has now run his old nemesis close. A second success at the US PGA Championship means Mickelson, whose career has regularly looked to be dwindling towards obscurity, has six major titles to his name. That total is only one shy of Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones. Seve Ballesteros “only” won five. That Mickelson claimed the Wanamaker Trophy, eight years after taking delivery of major number five at Muirfield, belied his advancing years.
This was glory for the ages, a sporting fairytale and a life lesson for 50-somethings everywhere. “I just believed that it was possible but yet everything was saying it wasn’t,” Mickelson said. “I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh, is it worth it in the end.
“I just love this game of golf. I love what I do and I love the challenge of competing against such great players.”
Mickelson was already known as one of the best ever to play this ridiculous game but the tenacity he showed at a brutally tough Kiawah Island is worthy of immense praise. Some scoffed when Mickelson was handed a special exemption into next month’s US Open. Who is laughing now?
Brooks Koepka, Mickelson’s Sunday playing partner, wilted badly en route to a 74. Mickelson’s margin of victory – as if detail seemed to matter – was two, at six under par, from Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen, after a 73.
Koepka’s putting was not convincing throughout the tournament but regressed further on day four. Oosthuizen will shiver when recalling the Ocean Course’s unlucky 13th hole. Twice in as many days, the South African found water there.
Mickelson’s previous top 20 result was last August in Memphis, with even that a glaring exception to a tale of competitive woe. It was understandable, then, that onlookers expected him to fold under youthful pressure. Instead, Mickelson’s ruthlessness forced his challengers into a series of errors.
A day of epic drama was characterised within two holes. Mickelson, having started with one-stroke lead, trailed Koepka after a bogey against birdie at the 1st. Koepka encountered a horrible lie by the green at the 2nd, which triggered a double bogey. As Mickelson birdied, he now led by two. At the 5th, Mickelson delivered the kind of short game sorcery as has typified his career. From a greenside bunker, a glorious shot found the bottom of the cup for a birdie two. Koepka lurked until costly bogeys at 10 and 11, the former affording Mickelson a four-shot advantage. Oosthuizen had emerged as the key threat but Mickelson was in territory of only being able to throw this championship away. Oosthuizen found alligator-ridden waters with his approach to the 13th. No wonder he looked skywards.
Mickelson had five shots to play with, meaning his ball trundling into water by virtue of a loose second to 13 needn’t be altogether fateful. Another bogey, at the 14th, where Mickelson missed the green, cut the lead to three. Oosthuizen had hope; Koepka, who was by now four back, just about likewise. Mickelson just had to tick off the holes; he parred the 15th, birdied the 16th, bogeyed the penultimate hole and eased to par at the last. Koepka, to his credit, finished strongly.
When Padraig Harrington chipped in for a birdie at the 14th, he was three under par and had an outside chance of an assault on the leaders. Europe’s Ryder Cup captain was to bogey the 15th, halting his charge, but a tie for fourth further emphasised a major for old(er) men. Harrington turns 50 in August. There is no prospect, though, of playing duties when the USA sit in opposition at Whistling Straits later this year.
“I’m well past that,” said Harrington with a smile. “I’m too long in the tooth at this stage. I’m very much dedicated to being the captain. I’m letting other people have their time. I had mine and you can’t do both. Nobody’s ever going to be a Ryder Cup captain and a player at the same time.”
Shane Lowry, who played with Harrington on Sunday, matched his compatriot’s aggregate, as did Harry Higgs and Paul Casey. Lowry was naturally full of praise for his partner. “He hasn’t lost it, has he?” Lowry said. “He’s still the ultra competitor. When he bombed a drive down 15, I was like, ‘Wow, if Paddy can make one or two on the way in, he’s got a good chance here.’ God help those guys on the Senior Tour.”
Mickelson has previously wrestled with dedicating his professional time to the very same, a more placid, domain. Watching what transpired here only rendered that dilemma utterly absurd. Phil has thrilled, three weeks before he turns 51. This marks his finest hour.