“Phil, I’m getting too old for this, but you aren't,” Steve Loy thumbed out to him. “Let’s get this done.”
Mickelson, in turn, went out and made golf history.
He became the oldest player to win a major golf championship, deftly navigating a windy day at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., doing so at 50 years, 11 months, a stunning triumph for a player seemingly in the sunset of his storied career.
There was a trim and tanned Mickelson, bobbing like a bronzed buoy one step ahead of a sea of spectators making their way down the 18th fairway, virtually everyone holding a phone camera aloft. At one point, the burly Brooks Koepka was swallowed up by the crowd, only to eventually emerge and complete his second-place finish, tied with Louis Oosthuizen two shots back.
“Slightly unnerving,” Mickelson would say later of the scene, which almost felt a like a mask-less punctuation to the pandemic, at least on that tiny island. “But exceptionally awesome.”
For most, it was an out-of-left-field win for “Lefty,” who collected his sixth major and first since the 2013 British Open. He was little more than an afterthought the last two years, and had zero top-20 finishes in the 10 months leading up to this tournament.
Mickelson, who called Sunday “certainly one of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life,” surpassed the feat of Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the PGA Championship in 1968.
“It's very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win,” said Mickelson, who won for the 45th time on tour. “Like if I'm being realistic. But it's also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run, I don't know. But the point is that there's no reason why I or anybody else can't do it at a later age.”
The timing is almost poetic as he prepares for next month’s U.S. Open, the only major he hasn’t won, although he has been runner-up six times. It’s being held at Torrey Pines, which is extra special to the San Diego native, and he no longer needs the special exemption he received to play in it. By winning the PGA, he gets an automatic five-year exemption for the other three majors.
Yet to the people closest to Mickelson, among them his younger brother and caddie, Tim, this victory was not a surprise. They say they saw this coming.
“He's actually been playing well over the last four or five months, just nothing really clicked all at the same time,” Tim Mickelson said. “One day his putting would be bad, the next day would be his chipping, but everything else was there.
“You [reporters] probably wouldn't be able to see it because we haven't been able to put it together for more than one round, but we all knew it was there, and he actually had told me three weeks ago, I think it was right after Charlotte, he said, `I am going to win again soon.’ I just said, well, `Let's just make sure we're in contention on a Sunday.’”
And they were. In fact, on Saturday night, Mickelson was also the oldest player to have an outright lead after 54 holes of a major. His friend and playing partner Tom Brady, who three months earlier became the oldest person to play in (and win) a Super Bowl, said Mickelson was an inspiration.
“He’s so committed and such a great athlete, it’s a pleasure to see him compete,” the Tampa Bay quarterback wrote to the Los Angeles Times in a text. “His love of the game is inspiring for us all and he’s always looking for ways to improve mentally, physically and emotionally! Just great to watch.”
Mickelson’s short game was deadly over the weekend, helping him save par on 18 with a signature flop shot to close the third round, make birdie at No. 5 on Sunday by holing out from 50 feet after a blast from the sandy waste area, and execute pivotal chips out of the tall grass surrounding greens.
His Sunday round got off to an undulating start — bogey, birdie, bogey, par, birdie, bogey, birdie — but he eventually found his rhythm. He credited his brother for helping him with that.
“I'm walking off 6, I had made some uncommitted swings the first six holes,” Mickelson said. “I had been striking the ball awesome the first three days. I had a wonderful warm-up session, like I was ready to go and I made some uncommitted swings the first six holes. He pulled me aside and said, 'If you're going to win this thing, you're going to have to make committed golf swings.’
“It hit me in the head, I can't make passive — I can't control the outcome, I have to swing committed.”
Mickelson repeatedly mentioned the importance of the support he gets from his wife, Amy, and in recent years has pointed to his diet — lots of fasting, lots of coffee — as contributing to his success. The biggest sacrifice?
“Food,” he said. “Yeah, I've got to eat a lot less and I've got to eat better. I just can't eat as much and I have to let my body kind of recover. But it's also been a blessing for me because I feel better and I don't have inflammation and I wake up feeling good.
“It's been a sacrifice worth making.”
Before him, a bounty unmatched.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.