Phil Mickelson. 2021 PGA Champion. Words few of us expected to hear before the weekend.
An understandable wobble and back nine nerves aside on Sunday, the 50-year-old held on to his lead from the final green on Friday – carding a 69 – to claim a remarkable win on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island by two strokes over Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.
Mobbed by the returning throng of spectators in South Carolina on the final fairway, Lefty secured a moment in sporting history, similar to ones more usually seen at an Open Championship.
But perhaps to say Mickelson ‘held on’ would not do the Californian justice, as a figure of consistency across the weekend, recording 70-69-70-73.
That in the face of tough, punishing conditions that had claimed the likes of the top two players in the world in local favourite Dustin Johnson and also Justin Thomas, as both missed the +5 cut mark.
Sealing his sixth major and second PGA Championship, Mickelson’s achievement of oldest male player to win a major is quite the feat, but so too it is to win his first in eight years, after his hopes of adding to his further three Green Jackets and Claret Jug looked to be at an end.
But this is sport and the amazing can happen. Mickelson is just the latest chapter.
You can teach an old dog new tricks…
Mickelson’s win at Kiawah Island may not reach the heights of the remarkable comeback tale of Tiger Woods, but Lefty’s win is an equally captivating story nonetheless.
Woods’ win at the Masters in 2019 was the stuff of Hollywood screenplays, but though Mickelson has not had his private life and subsequent fall from grace plastered across global media, the San Diego native has nevertheless had his own troubles.
Since his Open win at Muirfield in 2013, Mickelson had won just two PGA Tour events in Mexico and Pebble Beach prior to Kiawah Island, and until only a few mere days ago, his chances of another major crown were surely slim at best.
Forced to completely transform his game, Mickelson’s approach in recent years had drawn many critics, but his decision to leave coach Butch Harmon has now finally paid off after two hernia surgeries in 2017.
As a rather interesting narrative looking ahead, Mickelson turns 51 on June 16, with the US Open beginning a mere four days later, and, as a former forgotten man from the major enclosure, he will now be one of the favourites.
Such is his remarkable win at Kiawah Island then, next month in his own back yard of San Diego at Torrey Pines, Mickelson has the chance to claim the one major that has eluded him throughout his 29-year career.
Now that would be the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Not only was the triumphant return of Mickelson the story of the weekend, Padraig Harrington‘s T4 caught the headlines in South Carolina, but as too did the image of Brooks Koepka, finding himself back at the top of the major standings.
A two-time winner of the Wanamaker Trophy in 2018 and 2019, the 31-year-old endured a difficult spell between the end of 2019 and missed almost the entirety of the pandemic-affected following season with knee and hip problems.
The same afflictions however seemed a distant memory, as the Floridian was made favourite to win a third PGA trophy at the start of the final round, just a single shot off the lead.
As Mickelson’s rivals fell by the wayside at an alarming rate over the final 18 holes, it was Koepka that remained one of the sole threats, but even he was by then feeling the effects of a draining week on the Atlantic coast.
Nevertheless, after his recent injury malaise, his T2 finish was a gentle reminder to the field, that the four-time major winner is back as a contender. Torrey Pines could be interesting for Koepka.
McIlroy major wobbles continue
New McIlroy? Not so much.
After his victory at the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month, Rory McIlroy‘s return to Kiawah Island had left many believing we would see a revitalised player. What we got, largely, however, was the same player who currently struggles in a major.
Of a small crumb of comfort to the Northern Irishman and his fans, was he managed to progress to the weekend unlike in his prior two major tournaments, but still finishing a full 11 shots of of Mickelson at +5, leaves much to be desired.
Again we saw the flickers of a once genius teenager at the Ocean Course, but too often present also were the flames of inconsistency that have dogged McIlroy in the past two years.
Despite his change of coach, McIlroy is still left playing significant catch-up on a much improved field, and the rather alarming reality for McIlroy is – for the moment at least – his competition is now stronger than he can beat and by too many in number.
Fan return adding to occasion
Though the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, the return to fans at a limited capacity to events in the US has proved a real fillip for sport and for golf in particular.
As we saw on the approach to the 18th green this past Sunday, the hoards of spectators provided a scene that was simply an impossibility 12 months ago, to the detriment of the game.
With the US Open now less than a month away, British fans in particular are now looking to July with relish as the Open returns after its omission last year from the calendar.
Perhaps a replication of Sunday evening at Kiawah Island in Kent later this year, fills many with trepidation and fear of an outbreak, but the steps being taken by the PGA are brave ones and whether necessary ones or not, it cannot be disputed have added a vital sense of normalcy to the game of golf.
The 2021 US Open begins at Torrey Pines Golf Course, San Diego, on June 20.
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