On the first tee today, Koepka smashed one down the middle, taking the most aggressive of lines; during the first three rounds his ball-striking was so reliable it was boring to watch. As Mickelson stood over the ball you could almost hear the clack-clack-clack of a rollercoaster car inching towards a summit. Phil lashed his drive into the deep left rough and then came up miles short with his approach, leading to a three-putt bogey. Brooks, with typical ruthlessness, brushed in a birdie and just like that had snatched the lead. The ride had begun.
For Mickelson, it’s been three decades in the making. When he showed up at Arizona State University he was so confident he was destined to be a tour pro he already dressed like one; on a campus where students favoured shorts and thongs, Mickelson wore Sansabelt slacks, hard-collared shirts and belts with oversized buckles. (Since he was heading straight to the course after class he figured why waste time having to change?) His teammates were so aghast that late in Mickelson’s freshman year a group of them broke into his dorm room, gathered up the offending garments and set them ablaze in a fire pit. He has undergone constant metamorphosis ever since: can’t-miss kid; mega-talent who can’t win the big one; Tiger tragic; lovable loser; Phil in full; beloved elder statesman. When a 42-year-old Mickelson roared to victory at the 2013 Open Championship, on the strength of what he has called perhaps the finest round of his career, it felt like a victory lap. Phil made strong runs at the 2014 PGA, ’15 Masters and ’16 Open Championship but didn’t have quite enough firepower to win any of them. That set off what felt like a mid-life crisis, with Mickelson taking to social media to crow about his (admittedly impressive) calves and film increasingly goofy TV commercials. He couldn’t let go of the spotlight, even as the victories stopped coming.
But beneath all the salesmanship and showmanship Mickelson is a grinder and a golf obsessive. As his contemporaries grew fat and happy – or in the case of Woods, had their bodies break down – Phil kept doing the work, largely out of sight, whether in his backyard practice facility, the Callaway test centre or in money games across southern California and the Arizona desert. “What people don’t fully appreciate about Phil is how much he loves golf,” says Brendan Steele, who plays often with Mickelson on off weeks. “He gets so much joy from playing the game and he’s on a never-ending quest to get better. He never stops. The passion is always there. Yes, he has great hands and all of that, but I think his love for the game is the biggest reason why he’s been one of the best players in the world for 30 straight years.”
And yet the downside of experience is all the scar tissue, as Mickelson’s playing partner for the first two rounds, Padraig Harrington, noted poignantly. After Mickelson’s first-hole debacle today he steadied himself with a birdie on the par-5 second, thanks to an adroit up-and-down. But he bogeyed the third, a short par-4, after missing the green from 30 metres away. You could feel the tension, in the gallery at the Ocean Course and across Golf Twitter. On the tough par-3 fifth hole Mickelson lost his tee shot into a bunker on the short-side and it felt like the tournament was already slipping away. But he summoned some vintage magic, holing out for a game-changing birdie. It instantly joined the pantheon of Mickelsonian highlights, alongside the walk-off putt at the 2004 Masters that released so much catharsis; the tapping of the Nicklaus plaque on the 72nd hole at Baltusrol and then the exquisite chip that clinched the win at the ’05 PGA; the eagle-eagle-birdie burst to take another green jacket, in ’06; the fearless 6-iron out of the trees in Amen Corner at the ’10 Masters; and the curling birdie putt to clinch The Open three years later.
Of course, Phil is Phil so it was never going to be easy. He bogeyed the sixth hole out of the rough. But Koepka had little control of his golf ball, easing the pressure on Mickelson, who got up-and-down on the par-5 seventh hole to push his lead to two strokes. Across the front nine Mickelson hit only two fairways, suffered a three-putt, made three bogeys… and had somehow doubled his lead. When he flagged his approach on the 10th hole and Koepka made another soft bogey the margin was a commanding four strokes. The only question now was whether or not Phil could avoid self-immolation, a la Winged Foot (and sundry others). When he split the fairway on the 12th hole Mickelson gave a little fist pump on the tee, a nod to how important every drive had become. But he began playing prevent defence a little too early, leading to bogeys on the next two holes. On a day when every other would-be contender retreated, Oosthuizen finally showed some life with a birdie on the par-5 16th hole, cutting Mickelson’s lead to a tenuous two strokes. But Phil responded with two fearless swings, leaving himself just over the 16th green in two, and then followed with a quintessentially good chip. The kick-in birdie put him in a commanding position and Mickelson was carried home on the closing holes by the delirious fans, who chanted over and over “Phil! Phil! Phil!” The galleries love him because he lets them in. His colleagues may be annoyed by the marathon autograph sessions and the innumerable aw-shucks smiles and the endless thumbs-up gestures, but it’s part of Mickelson’s gift for connecting. “People like to call him a phony,” says tour veteran Kirk Triplett, “but I never understood that critique. Because he looks the fans in the eye and because he’s nice to the volunteers? Because he tips every clubhouse attendant $100? If the worst thing other players can say about you is that you’re trying too hard to be nice, you must be doing something right.”
A little jealousy is inevitable when you’re ninth all-time in victories on the PGA Tour. Mickelson had been stoic all week about what a victory would mean, part of a renewed emphasis on mental discipline, but in accepting the trophy he finally let a little emotion flow: “This is just an incredible feeling because I believed it was possible yet everything was saying it wasn’t. I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work, a little harder effort, but it’s so worth it in the end.”
This sixth Major championship victory ties him with his diametric opposite, the fastidious Nick Faldo, and Lee Trevino, one of the three or four greatest ball-strikers who has ever lived. If Mickelson can somehow steal another one – and at this point, how can you possibly bet against him? – he would join the immortals with seven majors: Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Harry Vardon.
One measure of the greatness of a career is the span between a first and last Major championship victory. Nicklaus, of course, leads the way at 24 years. Since the birth of the Masters, only Tiger Woods (22) Gary Player (19) and Ernie Els (18) can say they were better longer than Mickelson.
Of course, Phil’s prime overlapped with Tiger’s. Mickelson honks can lament how much more he would have won without Woods around but it was Tiger’s incomparable excellence that forced Lefty to dig deep and realise his own awesome potential. They were never true rivals because Tiger was clearly better. But while Woods’s life was sidetracked by scandal, addiction and carelessness, Mickelson sailed on – healthy, happily married and still beloved in the marketplace. What used to be said about his idol Arnold Palmer applies to Phil, too: no one could have more fun being Phil Mickelson than Phil Mickelson has. Woods’s dominance is unrivalled but you have to wonder if he would trade lives with the man he regularly bested.
This evening, when it was all over, Mickelson marched triumphantly across the grounds of the Ocean Course, serenaded by the fans. It now takes two hands to count his Majors, but in victory he offered only one digit: a thumb raised triumphantly to the sky.
Photo: Sam Greenwood