News & Opinion

Phil Mickelson makes sense of golf's nonsensical notions

Phil Mickelson wins 2021 PGA Championship
With his victory at the recent PGA Championship at age 50, Phil Mickelson expands the boundaries of what’s possible in golf.

Only in golf can a 50-something player with no recent momentum emerge victorious on one of the game’s biggest stages

As he flew home from an astounding week at Kiawah Island, Phil Mickelson was on his cellphone, responding to congratulatory tweets. One from @RiggsBarstool that finished, “This is awesome. Golf makes no sense.”

Nutted it.

Golf, indeed, makes no sense. The concept, the rules, the application, the manner in which it is written, promoted and discussed … make no sense. Before last week, 455 major golf championships were conducted. Only 13 men had won as many as six of them, only five had won after a 45th birthday. No one had won in his 50s.

Inside Mickelson’s inner circle, some suggested that they saw it coming. Some always do; you just never hear about it when it doesn’t. Outside that circle, no one of sound mind and body saw it coming. Mickelson, three weeks shy of his 51st birthday, was No. 115 in the Official World Golf Ranking, not a young player moving up but an aging player headed in the opposite direction. 

Before last week, in his most recent 16 majors, Mickelson had done no better than tie for 18th. That is not “in the hunt.” That’s more like in the neighboring countryside where the hunt is taking place. All that precedent and track record notwithstanding, the 50-year-old Mickelson won the PGA. It makes no sense. And yet, in golf it makes perfect sense. 

Golf is the classic-rock station of high-profile sports, the ultimate “oldies” channel. S’true. Tom Brady is a current Super Bowl champ, Nelson Cruz hits home runs and Zdeno Chara still patrols blue lines. But there are no offensive linemen in golf, no back-checking forwards, no hanging curveballs or designated hitting. In golf, you’re on your own.

Golf is where time actually travels, where Glory Days are revisited. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens. Thirty-nine majors have been won by participants 40 or older, and 29 players successfully turned back the clock to do so. Still others, such as Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd and Greg Norman, came damn close.

All were past their prime, some way past. It makes no sense, and yet it in golf – largely because of technology – it makes perfect sense. Technology doesn’t fully explain why Bernhard Langer can outplay rocket-launching Bryson DeChambeau at the 2020 Masters. Accuracy, experience, mental toughness … they’re in the details. But technology is the foundation, the factor that allows 63-year-old Langer to compete with 27-year-old DeChambeau on a 7,500-yard golf course. 

Yes, as the saying goes, it’s the Indian, not the arrows. But today's arrows are more forgiving, more dynamic and more enabling than ever before. They dramatically aid a competitor whose physical prowess is not what it was, who’s otherwise diminished by age. In the hands of the greats, such as Langer, Mickelson, Watson … the arrows can make magic.

A 50-year-old has to have a lot of things working for him to hit a 366-yard drive on the 16th hole at Kiawah. But it isn’t just the calves vs. the calve-nots; it doesn’t happen without technology.   

As a result, you now will read and hear that Mickelson has a reasonable chance to do it again, to win the approaching U.S. Open and complete a career Grand Slam. You also will read that Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker will be hard-pressed to keep Mickelson off the team, despite Mickelson’s unimpressive 18-22-7 career Ryder Cup record. And if he is on the team, Mickelson will make more headlines, topping Raymond Floyd as the oldest player to participate in a Ryder Cup. 

That’s how dramatically things change in this sport, and how inattentive it is to logic. 

Five minutes ago, Mickelson was a celebratory player, needing a special exemption to participate at Torrey Pines. At the 2020 PGA last August, he tied for 71st and followed it up with a string of missed cuts and pedestrian finishes. He was in the Champions Tour green room, a PGA Tour relic, a social-media sideshow. 

Now, he is the newest major-championship winner and needs exemptions like Jim Nantz needs voice lessons. He is once again lovable, loopy “Lefty,” No. 32 in your OWGR program, No. 1 in your golf-wagering heart. 

A 300-to-1 shot to win the PGA, Mickelson suddenly is a savvy pick to capture the U.S. Open three weeks later. That’s right. The first 50-year-old to win in 456 major championships now can be expected to win back-to-back. Moreover, Phil the Thrill turns 51 the day before the championship begins, so a U.S. Open victory would raise the bar and shatter the “oldest” record set at Kiawah in less than a month. 

After all, some will say, the national championship is in Mickelson’s boyhood backyard. San Diego’s Torrey Pines is the site of his three Buick Invitational wins, including his first victory as a professional, in 1993. Never mind that his last top-10 there was in 2011, or his last victory there was in 2001, or he tied for 53rd there at the Farmers earlier this year. Never mind that he suggested the venue was no longer “a good place” for him when he took it off his 2019 schedule. Forget the aforementioned 51st birthday.

Forget all of it. Instead, consider it entirely plausible that Mickelson can win a championship that he has not won in 29 previous attempts, a championship that has broken his heart and haunted his soul. Consider it quite likely that Elvis is living in Montana, John Lennon buried Paul and money grows on trees.

It makes no sense, yet in golf it makes perfect sense. And that’s why “this is awesome.”  

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