If a single shot personified Phil Mickelson’s utter refusal to give in to reason, it came on the 70th hole of his record-breaking PGA Championship victory. As the adrenaline took hold of his 50-year-old frame, his eyeballs popping behind a pair of secret service-like aviators, Mickelson unleashed a ferocious drive that sailed some 366 yards down the middle of the fairway – outmatching any player for distance on the 16th all week. They say Father Time is undefeated, but this was proof that his greatest opponent remains enthusiasm. And it is a testament to Mickelson that even in the twilight of an already illustrious career, few could claim to approach golf with such a stubbornly gleaming joy.
It might not have been evident as fans jostled down the 18th fairway at Kiawah Island, forcing an “unnerved” Mickelson to hurry a little towards history, but he has weathered many slights over the years. His peak was a gift and a curse, raised by Tiger Woods’ unconquerable talent but permanently consigned to its shadow. There have been prolific rumours over gambling debts and, in some corners, an open dislike of his ingratiating persona.
What has never been in question, though, is Mickelson’s undiluted love and obsession with golf, a quality for which he was revered by his peers long before he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday. “He never doubted himself,” said Mickelson’s brother and caddie, Tim. “His will and desire to win now is as high as it’s ever been in my opinion. Certainly, it’s probably higher than when I started caddying for him. He loves golf. I mean, when he’s at home, he’s still playing almost every single day, sometimes 36 holes. He’s grinding. It never stops for him.”
In recent years, Mickelson has leant on social media gimmicks and goofy advertisements, playing to the virtual gallery, but behind that facade he has remained fiercely determined, fighting with every fibre of his being so that mind could triumph over matter. “If I’m being realistic, it’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win,” he admitted afterwards, before adding a firm caveat. “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.”
What makes Mickelson’s victory all the more impressive is that, while he has always treated the concept of growing old with indignation, no amount of wacky one-liners or gratuitous thumbs-up could conceal a picture of decline. Only two weeks ago, he had accepted a sponsor’s exemption – a rite typically reserved for those whose popularity has outlived their ability – to play at next month’s US Open, having fallen out of the world’s top 100. He had dabbled in seniors’ events and bemoaned the difficulty of modern courses. “I’m 48, I’m not going to play tournaments with rough like that anymore,” he said after a miserable 2018 Ryder Cup. “It’s a waste of my time.”
Nothing, then, defied logic and personified golf’s mystique quite like a fading Mickelson, on precisely the sort of behemoth course he’d lamented, holding off a field of young, exuberant challengers. His body may be tired, but this was the best evidence that the golf ball knows no prejudice. When Mickelson’s rivals paled and faltered, his shotmaking oozed uninhibited invention, a sense of artistry that even age cannot suppress.
It is a quality of his that has always been volatile, regularly veering between the exquisite and erratic, but few can claim to have mastered such extremes. When Mickelson’s bunker shot on the fifth found the hole, just as his grip on the tournament appeared to be slipping, he had once again reduced the barely fathomable to something like a formality – after all, old habits have a knack of dying hard.
The allure of this victory will not quickly be forgotten, not just for Mickelson’s resurgent brilliance, but for what it represents: a finger to our preconceptions of age, a hope that talent is not always doomed by time. Few feats resonate quite like a success that transcends the notion of our mortality. Mickelson was supposed to be a legend of a generation past. Instead, his undying sense of fun – and yes, a little sageness – saw him navigate the dunes of the Ocean Course while the best players in the world, his supposed inheritors, were washed away.