The most trouble Phil Mickelson had all day was working his way through a mob of fans to get to the 18th green, raising his hand in triumph when he finally broke through. Just what he was thinking behind his massive sunglasses was hard to tell, though it was clear by the delirious uproar around him what everyone else thought.
They came to Kiawah Island mostly to watch a golf tournament without worrying about putting on a mask. They ended up getting a bonus no one saw coming — a win for the aged that wouldn’t have been any more popular if the champion had been wearing a red shirt on Sunday.
A lot of happy people finally got a chance to exhale. So did Mickelson, but not until he was ushered through the raucous throng onto the 18th green, with the PGA Championship safely in his hands.
“I’ve never had an experience like that,” Mickelson said. “Slightly unnverving but exceptionally awesome.”
The same could be said about the improbable win at the Ocean Course that made Mickelson the oldest major champion at the age of 50.
No, it didn’t seem possible. But, man, was it a lot of fun.
The numbers were all against him, from his age to the one posted by the guys who earn a living figuring these things out. Mickelson was 250-1 to win at the beginning of the week, and even when he jumped into the lead on Friday all but the most avid Phil followers figured it was inevitable that he would eventually crash and burn.
But something funny happened, as it tends to do in golf more than other sports. Mickelson, it turns out, had been working on elongating his mind to match his golf swing, employing meditation to help him visualize shots.
Quirky, yes. Different, sure. Phil has always been Phil, and advancing age hasn’t changed that.
But unlike the gum chewing craze Mickelson tried earlier, this actually worked.
He’s a major champion for the sixth time in his career. He no longer needs to play the senior tour for validation.
And he’s got another spot in the record books, much to the delight of almost everyone in golf.
“I just believed it was possible yet everything was saying it wasn’t,” Mickelson said. “I hope others find that inspiration.”
He might not have to look past the locker room to find out. His fellow players certainly took notice, and to a man they talked about both Mickelson’s love for the game and his love to compete at everything.
“His enthusiasm is what keeps him going at his age; (he) has the same enthusiasm I have at 26 and he’s been doing this a very long time,” Jon Rahm said. “I mean he’s been on tour as long as I’ve been alive. For him to keep that willingness to play and compete and practice, even when it hasn’t been working, it’s truly admirable.”
That golfers could be competitive in the biggest events at Mickelson’s age wasn’t exactly a revelation. Padraig Harrington is about to turn 50 yet he finished in a tie for fourth, just four shots back, and Steve Stricker put four solid rounds in at the age of 54.
Jack Nicklaus, of course, won the Masters at the age of 46. And who can forget Tom Watson with the British Open title in hand at 59 until he collapsed in 2009.
But Mickelson didn’t win by doing old guy things on a golf course where he knew all the tricks. He kept up — or passed — playing partner Books Koepka off the tee all day long, including on the par-5 16th hole when he smashed a drive 366 yards, the longest of the day and 3 yards past Bryson DeChambeau.
Yes, the meditation helped him focus when he needed it the most. But it might have been time put in elsewhere in an increasingly desperate race against the ever ticking clock that made the difference.
About the only thing that would have made it better would be if it had happened at the U.S. Open, where Mickelson is always a bridesmaid and never a bride. He’s finished second there five times, and needed a special exemption to get into next month’s field at Torrey Pines, almost a home course for him.
He doesn’t need it anymore, and he certainly won’t be a 250-1 pick when he tees off in San Diego. The craziest thing about Mickelson’s win may be that his game looks so solid he could win again — and soon.
But only after he basks in the satisfaction of a win that rivals his first Masters title in 2004.
“Certainly one of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life,” he said.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg