The most obvious answer to the why-old-guys-get-worse question: they get weak and slow. It’s why you don’t see any 45-year-old NBA players or NFL players not named Brady. Our bodies peak sometime in the mid-to-late 20s before slowly tapering off. Golfers are not immune to this – granted, Phil wasn’t exactly LeBron to begin with, but if you had him run through a full combine at 30 and one today, 30-year-old Phil would prevail easily. But golf does not force you to run or jump or cut; it calls for a very specific type of physical exertion.
Photo: Gregory Shamus
Phil has tailor made his fitness routine with flexibility in mind. He won’t get confused for Adonis, but he’s found a way to stay springy and actually gain speed in the past five years. On 16, his veins coursing with Major-Sunday adrenaline, Mickelson pumped his drive well past 31-year-old Brooks Koepka, 335 metres down the centre, with a cut. He is still long as ever.
Lefty has become obsessive about taking care of his body in recent years. It’s almost Brady-like. He leaves no stone unturned in his quest to resist aging. In July 2019, with his game lagging and his energy levels sagging, he opted for a six-day fast where all he consumed was coffee. The goal, he said, was a “hard reset”. That takes a level of commitment you or I are not familiar with. He’s since developed his own “Coffee for Wellness” – just ask him about it – but he’s also become a super disciplined eater, cutting out most meats and just generally being extremely careful about what he lets into his stomach.
LeBron and Brady have gone this route. So have Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. It is no coincidence that sporting careers continue to stretch far beyond what we thought was possible. The more we learn about the body, the better equipped athletes are to maximise its performance.
“I wasn’t educated,” Phil told Golf.com’s Luke Kerr-Dineen at last year’s US Open. “I either wasn’t aware or didn’t want to know the things I was putting in my body, whether it was diet soda and how toxic that is, or whether it was the amount of sugar and how much inflammation it causes, or whether it was the quantity; all of those things, I just kind of shut my eyes to.”
Surely, such clean eating (and drinking) has kept him feeling fresh and helped him mitigate the effect of his psoriatic arthritis, which he was diagnosed with in 2010. It’s no coincidence he’s been able to play.
If you watched Phil down the stretch closely, you couldn’t help but be struck by his sense of Zen. He oozed calmness. Interestingly enough, in recent months he’d been honest about his problems focusing. He’d hit good shots and even piece together good rounds, but he’d have a hard time stacking good rounds on top of one another or re-focusing when something takes him out of the zone. Which is totally normal.
“As you age, it typically takes more effort to sustain focus,” says Dr Bhrett McCabe, who works with a number of PGA Tour pros. “Golf is so hard because the mind is flooded constantly with processes and challenges that make it so hard to stay focused. You add in a Major championship, it’s brutal.”
Unwilling to simply accept that new reality, Mickelson has proactively sought out tangible remedies to keep himself sharp.
“I’m working on it,” Mickelson said on Friday. “I’m making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus. I might try to play 36, 45 holes in a day and try to focus on each shot so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn’t feel like it’s that much. I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating. 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 visualisation and see the shot.”
As he strolled up the final fairway today, with a mob of fans sprinting in his rearview mirror, Mickelson made a concerted effort to control his breathing. It’s a meditative practice that dates back millennia but is also backed up by modern physiology.
“When you focus on your breathing – say, breathe in on a three-count, hold it for two, then very slowly breathe out – you saturate your red blood cells with oxygen,” says Sean Foley, the noted swing instructor who takes a holistic approach to improvement. “When this happens, the primal part of our hardware is tricked into believing that everything is calm and under control. When our breathing hastens and we don’t have enough oxygen in our red blood cells, our brain begins to detect a threat. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, which regulates our ‘fight or flight’ response.”
How easy it would have been, in that moment, with a cacophony of over-served well-wishers ringing in your ears and history at your fingertips, to let it all spiral out of control. Instead, 50-year-old Phil Mickelson calmly traipsed up towards Kiawah’s 18th green and two-putted for the win. It was the summation of his multi-year crusade against the proverbial setting sun. This time, for once, Father Time finished second.