“I absolutely believe a player in their fifties will win a major,” Bernhard Langer said last month. He didn’t have to wait long to see that prediction realised by Phil Mickelson in a quite incredible performance at the US PGA Championship.
Mickelson, who turns 51 next month, was sublime at Kiawah Island last week. He was fantastic from tee to green on Saturday and really ramped up the excitement by opening up a five-shot lead. That advantage almost evaporated by the end of the third round, but Brooks Koepka’s three-putt at 18 and Mickelson’s brilliant up and down ensured that the veteran led overnight.
I don’t think there was a golf fan out there who didn’t want Mickelson to win. Still, even at that stage I didn’t really see it happening.
But the way he started on Sunday was great and he repeatedly kept his challengers at bay. Having bogeyed the first and allowed Koepka to take the lead, Mickelson bounced straight back at the next hole. Finding water at 13 was another setback but he kept his composure and made a great birdie at 16 to preserve a three-shot advantage.
Meditation pays off for mindful Mickelson
Mickelson’s sixth major came eight years after his last, at Muirfield in the 2013 Open Championship. He has looked after himself since then and remains a great golfer and a great athlete. He hasn’t lost the art of winning either: he won on the PGA Tour in 2019 and last year won his first two starts on the tour’s Champions circuit.
Winning a major is much more difficult, though, and I didn’t see this coming. I suspect Nostradamus himself wouldn’t have forecast Mickelson doing it a few weeks before his 51st birthday.
Course knowledge was always likely to be important, and although it had changed in the nine years since the US PGA was last held at Kiawah Island, I think that in the end it was. Great Pete Dye courses are set up to terrify you on the tee, but knowing where not to go and that it isn’t as bad as it looks is valuable.
There was something different about Mickelson all week, though. He seemed very calm, very thoughtful. He has spoken recently about the benefits of meditation, of working on his brain because he finds it harder to concentrate than he used to. Whatever he is doing, my God did he prove himself right.
Lee Westwood, in winning the Race to Dubai last year, and Mickelson are showing that Langer was right about players’ longevity nowadays. Everyone is fitter, from the twenty-somethings to the 50-year-olds. But for the older players to maintain that physical level and be able to handle the pressure of the biggest events is extraordinary.
When you think about outstanding major performances, a 59-year-old Tom Watson only losing out in a play-off for the Open at Turnberry in 2009 comes to mind. But Mickelson’s record-breaking achievement might be the greatest of all time.
Career grand slam beckons at US Open
Koepka was very disappointing on Sunday. He missed so many short putts, which is not like him, and never really got into it. When he went ahead at the first hole he immediately handed it back with a double bogey and never got near Mickelson again.
Louis Oosthuizen, who shared second with Koepka, at one stage looked like he might be on track to improve on his runner-up finish at the 2017 US PGA. But he also landed in the water at 13 and that was that.
Padraig Harrington and fellow Irishman Shane Lowry had great fun on their way to sharing fourth with Paul Casey, who boosted his hopes of making Harrington’s European Ryder Cup team later this year.
Mickelson might just be there too. He will also be in the spotlight at the US Open next month, when he will attempt to complete a career grand slam at Torrey Pines, near his native San Diego. But the US PGA will take some beating: this was a fantastic major and a wonderful result for the world of golf.
Sam Torrance OBE is a multiple Ryder Cup-winning golfer and media commentator. Follow him on Twitter @torrancesam.