News & Opinion

Phil Mickelson turns PGA Championship into a race, after all

Phil Mickelson at third round of 2021 PGA Championship
Phil Mickelson has the crowd behind him at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, where he will enter Sunday’s final round with a 1-stroke lead and a chance at major-championship history.

Mickelson watches his 5-stroke back-9 lead shrivel, but he still enters final round 1 stroke ahead as challengers line up

The House That Phil Built gleamed golden in the late Saturday afternoon sun at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

Phil Mickelson poured in a birdie putt at the 10th hole. He had just shot a 4-under 32 on the front nine, backing up the back-nine 31 that he had posted a day earlier, and suddenly he’d birdied five of the PGA Championship’s opening 10 holes and had a five-stroke lead.

Repeat for effect: Phil Mickelson, a few weeks before turning 51, led the PGA Championship by five strokes. He was running away as fast as a 50-year-old guy could run. Temporarily.

Time to hand him the Wanamaker Trophy?

Not hardly. He’s still Phil the Thrill, who can do exciting things in both directions, just like a fellow named Arnold Palmer. Plus, a major championship is a 72-hole marathon.

Saturday, Mickelson found out just how long that weekend walk can be. He ran low on fairy dust, rainbows and unicorn tails on the back nine, especially when the left-hander snap-hooked a tee-shot into the water at the 13th hole, leading to a double bogey. It may not have helped that he saw the other half of his pairing, Louis Oosthuizen, block a slice into that same hazard moments earlier.

Was the PGA Championship Mickelson’s to lose after that 10th hole? Not on Saturday, with 26 holes to play.

But it felt as if Mickelson, and others, were gasping for air in the fresh breezes off the Atlantic Ocean. He had just driven into a fairway bunker at the 12th and made bogey. He left the 13th with a one-shot lead.

Suddenly, the major championship that had become a one-man show turned into a multiplayer shootout. (For scores, click here.) It may be a wide-open finish and wild. Or maybe someone will break from the pack, as Mickelson did Saturday and as Hideki Matsuyama did Saturday after the storm delay at the Masters, and walk the dangerous tightrope that is the final six holes.

It figures to be a good show because no matter what, players such as Mickelson, Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka are gamers or warriors or whatever word describes that ability to never give up and keep believing.

Case in point: After their disastrous 13th holes (Oosthuizen saved a bogey), both players hit superb iron shots at the par-3 14th. Neither player converted the putt. The point is, they got right back on the horse and tried to win the Kentucky Derby. If you don’t like seeing guts like that, you don’t like golf and should switch back to The Poker Channel.

Who’s going to win this PGA Championship? Why, how convenient that you asked. Here’s how the final day shapes up, in order of rank on the leaderboard:

Phil Mickelson, 7 under: Be honest, how fired up would you be going into the final round if Mickelson weren’t in the mix? Would you really be on pins and needles to see whether Koepka and Oosthuizen could withstand a charge from Kevin Streelman? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Mickelson brings the entertainment value. Through 10 holes, his golf was Tiger-esque. From a waste bunker at the third hole – sorry, PGA of America, but I’m not calling it a “sandy area” – he hit a wedge approach that spun back to within 2 feet for a kick-in birdie, although technically, kicking isn’t allowed. Just before that, he’d pounded an approach to the par-5 second hole that bounded through the swale and up onto the green for a great birdie opportunity, a good shot that got a favorable bounce.

The last eight holes, it was back to Phil-harmonic dissonance. Is that really a word? Maybe not, but it sounds as if it has Jim Nantz’s last name in it, so I’ll allow it. Then at 18, after seeing Koepka miss his par putt up ahead, Mickelson badly blocked his approach and missed the green left. Was that his so-called lack of focus, which other players tend to call bad shots? Or was he simply experiencing his own gas shortage? There’s a reason why nobody older than 48 has won a major yet. Great players can still play great golf in later years, just usually not for four straight rounds, whether it’s driving or putting or simply waking up not feeling the same. A potential wild-card tiebreaker: Koepka has the patience gene that Mickelson maybe still doesn’t totally own. The good news: Mickelson got up and down to save par on 18 to hang on for a one-stroke lead. The bad news: He’ll be paired with Koepka on Sunday. Conclusion: It would be a better story if Mickelson has an encore moment and wins this PGA, and it'll be a better tournament finish if he’s able to stay in it to the end … but haven’t we already seen this story in the U.S. Open?

Brooks Koepka, 6 under: All you need to know is that this guy’s right knee still hurts enough that he can’t just bend over and mark his ball, he has to do a yoga pose with his legs split and reach down with his marker. In addition, his swing was off on the front nine Saturday, and he clearly was fighting it. He straightened up his tee ball on the closing holes, notably reaching the 600-yard-plus 16th hole in two and narrowly missing an eagle, and looked like the impervious assassin he used to be when he won four majors in three years and outdueled the likes of Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. In short, he struggled.  “That was probably the worst putting performance I’ve ever had,” said Koepka, who blamed the putting green for being faster than the greens on the course. And yet he ended up one one stroke behind after 54 holes. Whereas Mickelson went on an incredible run, gave it his best shot and … couldn’t stay ahead of him.

Koepka was the smart bet Friday. He’s younger, stronger and tougher than his competitors. The only question that lingers is this: Is this post-knee-damage Koepka as formidable as the pre-injuries Koepka? He slipped up on the last two holes, making a key par-saving putt at 17 but missing a key par-saving putt at 18. So, he’s not invincible. Conclusion: With apologies to Mickelson (hey, this is a business decision), Koepka is the player to beat. And, by the way, such a victory would mean that he and Mickelson would be tied with five major championships on their resumes.

Louis Oosthuizen, 5 under: You’ve got to admire Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner at St. Andrews who looked as if the situation got to him all day. He never has won in the U.S., and his most recent near-miss was at the Zurich Classic, which he and partner Charl Schwartzel lost in a playoff after Oosthuizen hit their tee ball (alternate-shot format) into the water on the opening playoff hole. Somehow, he got it around in even par. Maybe Saturday was the dry run he needed to steel himself for Sunday’s finale. But his new putting routine didn’t deliver results in the third round, and his usual sweet swing unleashed a few too many sour notes. Conclusion: He’s already won the Runner-up Slam, having finished second in all four majors. The man is consistent.

Kevin Streelman, 4 under: Yes, he sounds like the answer to the first part of the question, Who doesn’t belong, and why? In fairness, he did win a Travelers Championship in Hartford once by making birdies on the final seven – yes, seven – holes. He keeps it in the fairway, and if he could’ve gotten more of his putts to the hole Saturday, he’d be a lot closer to screwing up TV’s dream showdown between Koepka and Mickelson. It won’t be Streelman’s fault if he feels out of his comfort zone, Since 2017, he has played in only four other majors, with a best finish of 57th. He has never cracked the top 10 in a major, in fact. In 25 majors, he has only three top-25 finishes. It looks like Jack Nicklaus’ record is safe from him. Conclusion: Streelman, at 42, is an even bigger Cinderella story than Mickelson. His strength may be that he doesn’t know he’s not supposed to win this thing … like most long, long shots.

Branden Grace, 3 under: Here’s your sleeper pick. This South African hits a low ball and excels in the wind. If the breezes strengthen Sunday – and we can only hope that they do, strictly for entertainment value – he is more than capable of pulling this off. He was in the hunt in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, though few remember that, and he posted a 62 in the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale, the lowest score in any major. So, he’s not a fluke. Grace had too many miscues Saturday, marked by five bogeys, including one on a par 5, which is a no-no. Conclusion: When the wind’s in your face, swing like Grace.

Christiaan Bezuidenhout, 3 under: Really, I just put him on this list to show off my killer spelling skills, honed through years of sportswriting. He’s a good young player, but isn’t everybody except for Mickelson and Streelman? Conclusion: As late sports announcer Curt Gowdy often said, “His future is still ahead of him.”

Bryson DeChambeau, 2 under: Take away his ugly double bogey at the 17th on Saturday and give him a par and, hey, Chamu is seriously in this. As it is, he needs a Mickleson-esque 4-under front nine to climb back into the mix. He keeps making mistakes and getting off the fairway, which he escaped successfully at Winged Foot when he won the U.S. Open but isn’t getting so fortunate at the Ocean Course. Give him three birdies and an eagle on the four par 5s Sunday and, hmm, he’s still got a chance. Conclusion: He’ll need a hero finish to win this, but have you ever seen a guy who wants to be a hero this badly?

Gary Woodland, 2 under: He shot even par Saturday despite making three double bogeys. What’s that mean? I’m not sure, but I know one golf coach, although he wasn’t talking about major-championship golf, who liked to say, “Good players don’t make doubles.” Three pars instead of three doubles ties Woodland for the lead. Conclusion: He needs to play bogey-free Sunday. Is that even doable?

Jordan Spieth, even: Is seven shots back possible? Yes. Is it likely? No. Even if Mickelson were to melt, Spieth is six behind Koepka. Does this train of thought have to go any further? He shouldn’t even be on this list of contenders because his was a very disappointing performance. Conclusion: I shouldn’t have bet him after Friday’s round … but I’m not bitter. Much.

Everyone else: It’s going to take a miracle or better. But have a nice day …

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.