Column: Phil Mickelson turns back the hand of time, takes millions along for ride

Phil Mickelson of the United States celebrates on the 18th green after winning Sunday's PGA Championship.
Phil Mickelson celebrates on the 18th green after winning the 2021 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
(Getty Images)

Hundreds of spectators swarm around him walking up 18, with millions more on TV, eager to witness history


As hundreds upon hundreds stormed the 18th fairway in the closing moments of the 103rd PGA Championship, rushing to see Phil Mickelson, rushing to inhale history, rushing no matter what overwhelmed security staff and tournament workers did to quell the surge, something scary and wholly remarkable happened.

The sunburned brigade, cellphone cameras and warm beers raised toward the robin’s egg-blue sky, long ago screamed hoarse, reached a green without golfers Sunday at the Ocean Course.

Somewhere in that crush of celebration wiggled Mickelson, just two putter strokes away from becoming the first golfer in the game’s rich and lengthy history to win a major championship at 50 years old.

The mass of humanity stopped at the edge of the green well before Mickelson poked through like a ghost player emerging from the cornfield in “Field of Dreams.”

Mickelson, the San Diegan who collected his sixth major championship by shattering the sport’s perceived limitations about age, showed no wobbles or bracing concern from his time in a surreal gauntlet.

In fact, he smiled and fired a thumbs-up.

Banking a 6-under, two-stroke victory that cemented the type of history that will cause the thousands who bull-rushed the final hole to relay it to their grandchildren, who can pass it along to theirs, mends all mayhem.

“It’s been a while since I held that,” said the Wanamaker Trophy-hoisting Mickelson, who will turn 51 the day before next month’s U.S. Open at his hometown Torrey Pines. “I forgot how heavy it is.”

That’s a cap-tip to 2005, when Mickelson won at Baltusrol in New Jersey. Time appeared to have moved on without one of its most decorated stars, however, despite 44 PGA Tour victories.

In his last two trips to the PGA Championship, Mickelson tied for 71st. In his two previous trips, he missed the cut. The last time cheers of “Lefty!” rang this loud in a major was 2013 as he captured the British Open at Scotland’s Muirfield Golf Links.

The time machine Sunday was not a solo trip. Mickelson brought thousands at the Ocean Course and millions on TV along for the improbable ride.

Along the way, the victory gave golf its Tom Brady moment, its Serena Williams moment, its Gordie Howe moment.

Speaking of moments ...

“Certainly one of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson began a round with stirring implications and possibility as if his golf ball had been tossed in a dryer and someone thumbed the start button. Bogey. Birdie. Bogey. Par. Birdie. Bogey. Birdie.

Final pairing partner and co-runner-up Brooks Koepka, hunting a staggering third PGA Championship in four years, mimicked the Tour mainstay nearly 20 years his senior at the start.

Koepka birdied No. 1, then double-bogeyed 2. He botched a birdie putt of 3 feet and change a hole later. Then came a birdie on 6, paired with a bogey on 7.

Up and down. Back and forth. Fist pumps, followed by face palms. This wasn’t golf. This was hand-to-hand combat. Pitch for pitch, putt for putt, punch for punch.

Fasten your seat belt for takeoff, indeed.

“This is like the Twilight Zone out here guys,” veteran CBS course reporter Dottie Pepper said. “Wow.”

This was the type of excellence squaring off in the final round of a major that golf had not seen in 40 years. Pinpointing a final-round pairing at a major where each golfer owned at least four majors meant rewinding to Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the 1981 Masters.

When Mickelson’s ball landed in the rough on No. 11, it was decided that a fan had picked it up and dropped it. As a rules official explained what would happen, Mickelson wore a wide smile as he chided the man making the decision about getting a club’s length of relief.

As the kind of history that boggles reason loomed, Mickelson showed an ease and calm that belied the bundle of nerves that should have ridden shotgun.

“Just the ability to kind of quiet my mind and get rid of all the exterior noise,” Mickelson began. “That’s kind of been the biggest — I don’t want to get all spiritual, but that’s kind of been the biggest thing for me.”

The defining moment on the front nine came at No. 5, when Koepka landed squarely on the green and Mickelson found himself in a greenside bunker.

The player who stood 155th in sand saves on tour flipped the script and momentum by holing the shot to thunderous applause.

“It was a momentum builder,” Mickelson said.

Koepka remained a stroke back at the turn, before stumbling to a bogey on 10 as Mickelson dug out a birdie to cushion the advantage. Mickelson posted back-to-back pars as the field drifted to five back as he played No. 13.

Six players 50 or older held at least a share of the lead heading into the final round of a major — Watson, Greg Norman, Sandy Herd, Harry Vardon and Julius Boros. Only Mickelson reached the historic finish line.

“To win a major championship at this stage of his career, I definitely teared up for the first time since caddying for him 4 1/2 years ago,” said Tim Mickelson, his brother, caddie and on-course counsel.

Trying to bubble wrap a three-stroke lead with two to play, Mickelson hit through the 17th green into the sinisterly understated “native area.” That’s code, in most cases, for not good.

Mickelson navigated to a clean bogey that had the potential to be worse.

Then came the sea of history-seekers so eager to become witnesses at close range that many raced nearer to the final pin than the person penning the history itself.

Do AARP cards cover injuries at golf majors? Not for Mickelson, but for any implied liability related to his playing partner. Koepka said his knee that underwent surgery in March was banged on multiple times amid the throng.

In the wake of the concerning moments, Koepka could not help but marvel about Mickelson, too.

“It gives me hope that, you know, I mean, I hope I’m still playing at 50, but to be able to come out and compete and actually win, that’s a whole ‘nother thing,” Koepka, 31, said.

History found its exclamation point with a shoulder-to-shoulder admiration society, too frenzied to count.

“It’s an incredible experience,” Mickelson said. “I’ve never had something like that.”

Neither has golf.