Mickelson Wins the 2021 PGA Championship
Phil Mickelson wins the 2021 PGA Championship in historic fashion. Thirty years after The Ocean Course forever transformed the world’s perception and awareness of, not to mention enthusiasm for, the Ryder Cup, Mickelson, who at one month shy of 51 became the oldest golfer to win one of golf’s major championships, patiently stayed a steady course over four grueling, wind-buffeted rounds. He prevailed over a field of the world’s greatest golfers, several of whom were still staggering around in knee-britches when he first broke into the professional ranks. Another 30 for the record books: it was three decades since Mickelson won his first tour event, the longest span between wins in golf history. And he did so on the longest course set-up — 7,876 yards — ever hosting a major.
Mickelson finished at six under par 72, two strokes ahead of co-runners-up Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka, the latter with whom he was paired for a spectacular final round reminiscent of a toe-to-toe heavyweight bout. “Phil defeats Father Time,” CBS’s Jim Nantz memorably declared as the sound of Mickelson’s final putt hitting the bottom of the cup instantly became drowned out by the roar of a jubilant crowd surrounding the eighteenth green.
Posting rounds of 70, 69, 70 and 73, Mickelson followed a champion’s proven formula for winning. He didn’t card the best score every single round. He simply went about his business with the consistency of an elder statesman, largely avoiding the major ebbs that often derail a golfer’s bid to mount the champion’s podium and which have famously plagued him at critical moments in the past, such as on the eighteenth hole at the 2006 US Open. In the end, experience and patience trumped strength of youth and meteoric flashes.
At the end of round one, Mickelson found himself quietly sandwiched in an eight-way tie for eighth, keeping good company with defending champion Collin Morikawa. A crowded field of six stood tied for second place. Corey Conners alone led the field with a remarkable 67, only to slip out of the top-10 after posting subsequent over-par scores of 75, 73 and 73.
In round two, Mickelson declared his run for the Wanamaker Trophy on the back nine, carding five birdies on the difficult final nine-hole stretch, with the final five holes playing into a vicious easterly wind that had also dominated first-round play. He would go on to complete the day tied with Oosthuizen for first at five under par.
Mickelson continued on his tear on round three with a roaring start, scoring back-to-back birdies on two and three and again on six and seven. Electric excitement began to palpably build throughout the galleries that swelled ever larger from hole to hole on the front nine. After parring the ninth hole that proved birdie-proof all day, he confidently strode over the sand to the back nine, like some prophet of old leading his flock towards the promised land. He had finished out at a sizzling four under.
On the back nine, Mickelson seemed poised to continue the run by birdying ten before taking it on the chin with a bogie on twelve and a double on thirteen. Both he and Oosthuizen momentarily flirted with disaster on thirteen, drowning their tee shots in the water guarding the entire right side of the fairway. While Oosthuizen’s ball was ruled to cross the line, allowing him to drop on the other side of the water near the fairway, Mickelson deemed the flight of his ball to remain out of bounds, leaving him to take the difficult penalty shot from the tee. Mickelson wound up with a double and Oosthuizen with a bogie. Despite this forgettable hole, the sometimes mercurial Mickelson managed to keep his wits about him to finish with pars on the often doom-dispensing seaside stretch of 14 through 18, turning in a round of 70.
Sunday broke, promising high drama and tension building up to Mickelson and Koepka’s 2:30 starting-time showdown. The winds which subtly shifted from easterly throughout the early week to southeasterly on Saturday had continued its counterclockwise move overnight. It now blew from 180 degrees of its previous path. Players would experience Pete Dye’s diabolical “two courses in one,” forced to shift strategy with 15-mile-per-hour winds now gusting from the west.
Off to a shaky start, Mickelson carded as many bogies as birdies (three apiece) on the front nine. But he did save par on four, eight and nine. A crucial birdie on par-three number five resulted from holing out with a nifty shot from the sandy waste area guarding the left side of the green. He later credited that birdie as a make-or-break momentum-builder, admitting, “I just didn’t want to throw away another shot, and I had fought hard to keep the round in check and I was still one-over through four.”
He drew wind in his sails on the back nine by birdying number ten, followed by two pars before slumping through back-to-back bogies on the Achilles’ heel thirteen and again on fourteen. Koepka, meanwhile had done himself no favors with a double bogie on two and a bogie on seven, negating birdies on one and six to finish two over on the front nine. His back nine started disastrously, with back-to-back bogies on 10 and 11, par on twelve, then matching Mickelson’s bogie on thirteen. With wind at his back starting on fourteen, he did manage to corral two birdies on fifteen and sixteen, with solid pars on the remaining holes.
Oosthuizen meanwhile remained busy putting together a solid one-over performance, but it wasn’t enough in the end to overtake Mickelson’s lead carried over from the previous round. The leader absolutely bombed his driver on the par-five sixteen, flying the ball on a rope 324 yards through the air with a bonus 42-yard roll, leaving himself only 244 yards from the green, which he hit and then two-putted for birdie. Despite a bogie on the infamous par-three seventeenth, dropping a stroke to Koepka, he still maintained a narrow lead heading to the final hole.
All week players had been playing it safe to the left. Any badly errant shot would get relief due to the presence of the large hospitality complex lining the length of the fairway. While Koepka made his move with a do-or-die aggressive shot down the right, Mickelson took the latter approach. Despite Mickelson’s lie presenting him a more challenging line over sandy waste areas guarding the entire left side of the elevated green, his second shot struck safe, leaving him some 10 feet from the pin.
As both men made the final walk down the fairway, what will undoubtedly prove to be one of sports’ most dramatic scenes occurred. Exuberant spectators rushed in behind the pair, momentarily enveloping them and their caddies before encircling the entire putting surface. Keopka two putted for par. Suddenly, one could have heard a pin drop as Mickelson left his first putt just inches from the hole, then the crowd erupted the moment his final put for par broke the plane of the hole and sank triumphantly.
Before the start of the 2021 PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson reflected on his three-decades-long professional careers: “I’ve failed many times in my life and career, and because of this I’ve learned a lot. Instead of feeling defeated countless times, I’ve used it as fuel to drive me to work harder. So today, join me in accepting our failures. Let’s use them to motivate us to work even harder.” In his press conference after the final round, Mickelson drew on this familiar theme when asked how at 50 he seemed to accomplish the impossible. “Worked harder, is the deal,” he crisply answered, before expounding, “I just had to work harder physically to be able to practice as long as I wanted to, and I’ve had to work a lot harder to be able to maintain focus throughout the round.” He concluded, “I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. It just took a little more effort.”
All that work culminated in a transcendent moment. Phil Mickelson transcended the barriers imposed by age, and in so doing presented the world a gift. His glorious, unlikely, audacious victory transcended even the game of golf itself to enter the pantheon of sports’ greatest achievements, the aged winning one for the ages.