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At 50, Phil Mickelson might have 1 major moment left in him

Phil Mickelson in second round of 2021 PGA Championship
Phil Mickelson holds a share of the 2nd-round lead at the 103rd PGA Championship.

As co-leader through 36 holes of PGA, Mickelson goes into weekend aiming for 2nd Wanamaker Trophy in 16 years

Until Friday, one of the following was not the answer to the commercial-cliché question, “What will Phil do next?”

a) Build a national chain of drive-through doughnut shops (gluten-free, of course!) called “Phil Up.”

b) Co-host an ESPN sports-talk show with soon-to-be former Jaguars player Tim Tebow.

c) Retire to the Champions Tour, win 10 tournaments a year and settle for being King of the (Much Smaller) Hill.

d) Co-lead the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s windswept Ocean Course after 36 holes at age 50-plus (he turns 51 next month).

This is not a trick question. You are not hallucinating, and this is not the result of Russian collusion. Phil Mickelson, Answer D, is co-leading the 2021 PGA Championship – with Louis Oosthuizen, at 5 under par, one stroke ahead of Brooks Koepka. (For scores, click here.)

When Mickelson finished his second round on a windy morning, he actually held a two-shot lead. 

By Friday’s end, Mickelson was in a share of the lead, thanks to a final-hole bogey by Oosthuizen and bogeys at 16 and 17 by Koepka.

Let’s bask in this beautiful moment of Phil-harmonic convergence for a few minutes. There may not be many (re: any) more where this came from. Mickelson’s second-round 69 put a charge of electricity into this PGA. With Tiger Woods out of action, Mickelson is the Other Guy Who Moves the Needle in golf. Mickelson and Woods essentially carried professional golf since the mid-1990s, and, yes, credit Woods for most of that profitable heavy lifting.

Woods was sidelined indefinitely by a car accident early this year. Mickelson faded from view after his last PGA Tour victory two years ago, the 44th of his career, at Pebble Beach. Things Mickelson hasn’t done: 1) win a major since 2013, when he was the surprise British Open victor at Muirfield; 2) win anything in two years since that memorable week at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am; 3) finish in the top 20 on the PGA Tour in 2021, unless you count T-20 at the Cologuard Classic, a Champions Tour event. And, no, geezer golf doesn’t count.

At almost-51, Mickelson is Cinderella at this PGA Championship. He opened at 200-1 odds (at BetMGM.com) to win the 103rd PGA, and after his dalliance with the lead, dropped to 14-1 odds late Friday afternoon. (But remember, there is no gambling at Bushwood, sir … and I never slice.)

Jack Nicklaus, at age 46, had his encore moment at the 1986 Masters. Woods, at 43, had his at the 2019 Masters. Could this be Mickelson’s straight-outta-right-field encore? That would be such a Phil thing to do.

There are at least two obstacles in the way of this fantasy.

One, Mickelson is in uncharted territory. Sam Snead in 1966 is still the only 50-year-old to lead the PGA Championship after two rounds, although Mickelson came oh-so-close. And Julius Boros, at 48, is the oldest player to win any major, the 1968 PGA. Tom Watson’s near-miss at the 2009 British Open, at age 59, tells us that anything is possible, even if unlikely. Also, a Mickelson victory would mean PGA Championship victories 16 years apart. Only Gene Sarazen (1923, 1933), Gary Player (1962, 1972) and Lee Trevino (1974, 1984) have won PGAs as much as 10 years apart.

Mickelson, however, knows as well as anyone that he isn’t anywhere near to winning this PGA Championship, which would be his sixth major title. When an ESPN interviewer told Mickelson moments after he’d finished that he had just taken over the lead following Branden Grace’s double bogey, he answered, “If you were to tell me that Sunday night, I’d really enjoy that, but right now, there’s a lot of work to do. The fact is, I’m heading into the weekend with an opportunity, and I’m playing really well and having a lot of fun.”

ESPN got its scoop. This just in: Mickelson is having fun. Who would’ve guessed?

Jason Day, who was paired with Mickelson, explained the surge. “There were no foul balls,” said Day, who won the 2015 PGA at Whistling Straits. “Usually with Phil, you can get some pretty wide ones. He kept it straight out in front of him, and his iron play was pretty tight. When he was out of position, he just kind of, you know Phil: get up-and-down.”

Brooks Koepka in 2nd round of 2021 PGA Championship
Brooks Koepka, who has struggled with knee injuries recently, thrusts himself into contention at the 103rd PGA Championship.

The second obstacle for Mickelson, a much bigger one than mere history in a book, is Koepka. He was having ordinary battle-against-the-winds round at the Ocean Course until something semi-magical happened, the kind of thing that used to happen during that three-year stretch during which Koepka won four major championships with Woods-like swagger.

At the par-5 seventh hole, Koepka coaxed in a lengthy putt for eagle. There are no trees for the gallery’s roars to echo through, like at Augusta National in the Masters, but it was an alarm bell starting to ring right as we were still riding the Mickelson Wave to shore. The official stats say the putt was 41 feet 4 inches. It felt bigger than that. Four holes later, Koepka had a 19-footer for eagle that disappeared. He dropped an approach to 5 feet on the next hole, No. 12, and made a birdie. Suddenly, everyone was reminded of how Koepka used to turn into Superman in major championships.

Golf is always littered with Kryptonite, of course, and a bad lie in the rough at 15 led to one bogey by Koepka and at 17 – well, it’s the infamous 17th, the next best thing to an island green. Bogeys happen. And worse. Those two holes took a little shine off Koepka, who holed an 11-footer to save par at 18.

There are a lot of options for this weekend, but one intriguing one is Koepka versus Mickelson. Don’t expect Koepka to lose any sleep over that matchup if it happens. Koepka already stared down Woods at the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis. He outdueled Dustin Johnson, the current No. 1 player in the world who missed the cut despite an eagle of his own at No. 7, in the 2019 PGA at Bethpage Black. He outplayed Tommy Fleetwood at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and held off Justin Thomas and, meh, nothing personal, Brian Harman at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

The only glaring major failing for Koepka was the ’19 Masters, when he joined Francesco Molinari and several others in dunking shots into Rae’s Creek at the 12th hole in the final round, allowing Woods to take control and slip into the green jacket. Koepka has been hampered by knee ailments during the past two years and hasn’t looked like himself, until this week.

There are plenty of other potential contenders. Oosthuizen has won only one major title, at the 2010 British Open. His last victory was 2½ years ago in the South Africa Open. He and Charl Schwartzel lost a playoff last month in the Zurich Classic, the PGA Tour’s two-man team event.

Oosthuizen played a bogey-free round Friday until the 18th, when his approach ran over the back of the green. He tried putting it up and over the slope, but it came up short, and he missed a 9-footer for par.

Matsuyama is in the hunt again and, of course, he’s still the only man with a chance to win the Grand Slam. Go ahead and laugh, but if he takes this PGA, he’ll be even bigger news in Japan than when he won the Masters.

Who’s not in the hunt also is notable. Dustin Johnson joined Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele, three of the top four players in the world, plus Sergio Garcia and Fleetwood in missing the cut. Jordan Spieth three-putted the final hole to drop to 4 over and make the cut with one stroke to spare. Rory McIlroy made four birdies, including on his last three holes, but bogeyed two par-5 holes and finished at 2-over 146.

The Calamity of the Day belonged to Cameron Tringale. He was 3 under through 13 holes, then finished with a Master Lock combination: 6-4-10-7-5. How did he make 10 at the par-5 16th? He missed a 43½-foot putt for 9. Let’s leave it at that.

Conditions at the Ocean Course were difficult for most of the day, with winds averaging 20 mph. Oosthuizen ranked the difficulty level at 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. It was considerably tougher than the first round, with the gusts picking up midway through the morning wave of players.

Paul Casey, a runner-up to Collin Morikawa in last August’s PGA Championship, shot 71 Friday and said, “Even I’m quite impressed with myself because this is one of the hardest golf courses on the planet. I didn't remember how difficult this place was. It's a piece of work. But I quite enjoy it in a sick-and-twisted kind of way.”

More wind is expected to rake the Ocean Course this weekend, and it might shift directions for the final round.

So, buckle up, Phil. Buckle up, everyone.

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