Well, chalk one up for the oldies! What an amazing win of Phil Mickelson’s at Kiawah Island’s Ocean course!
If you’re at a loss as to what I’m talking about you need to get out more. Phil Mickelson won his sixth major and his second US PGA Championship at the weekend, thus becoming the oldest man to hoist one of the major trophies. He’s a handful of days away from his 51st birthday but he triumphed over a field of world-class players many of whom are half his age.
I have to confess I didn’t think he’d do it – I suspected he would falter and be run over by legions of players passing him as his normal, all-out-attack game started to explore the outer reaches of Pete Dye’s daunting creation. Not a bit of it! This was uber-cool Phil, hidden away behind the dark shades and dressed daily in mostly dark colours like a gunslinger in the wild west.
He hadn’t been in contention in a major since that phenomenal 2016 Open Championship shoot-out with Henrik Stenson which the latter won for his finest moment in the game. Five years removed from that kind of pressure is a long time in sport and, familiar though it may be, it isn’t a given you can conjure up the resilience of your younger self and produce your best under the most exacting conditions.But Phil had trained himself for this moment. In the last few years he has worked harder physically so as to be able to practise longer. He identified and dealt with the problem of a lack of focus by taking up meditation and playing more holes – often 36 and sometimes 45 – to help improve his ability to concentrate and think clearly over a longer period of time. Being physically and mentally sharper helped him deal with everything a major throws at you and although he was always recognisable as the Mickelson we’ve known for years there was an added dimension to him last week as well.
Even a last-minute glitch on Sunday didn’t derail him. With his last full shot on the practice range he cracked the face of his much-loved 1-iron and Tim had to scurry off to put a replacement in the bag, a 4-wood, a club he hadn’t used all week. That would have unsettled most players but Phil never faltered.
He maintained his composure; he was never flustered; the rhythm of his golf swing was exceptional; his walk was measured and unhurried even when he was threatened with being overrun by a tsunami of adoring fans down the last fairway; he was fully in control of all the controllables – his emotions, his thinking, his choices, his decisions. That is the epitome of being on top of your game. Mastery of these skills allowed him to access his best physical and technical performance and in this instance that was good enough to see off the opposition.Over the years I’ve had ample opportunity to walk with Mickelson, commentate on his golf and interview him afterwards. When I first started working in the States some 15 years ago, he wasn’t a particular favourite of mine – too cheesy, I thought. A little too superficial, perhaps.
It didn’t take long for my ill-judged and preconceived notions to be blown out of the water. Phil was consistent in his behaviour time after time. Whenever he came to do his media work, he would accord each question due consideration and answer to the best of his ability. If he had messed up the final few holes of a round and lost his cool, he would send Jim “Bones” McKay, his caddy, out from the recorder’s office for a sandwich and he’d remain in there having his lunch and waiting till he’d regained his cool. Only then would he come out to do interviews and answer the questions of the media.
It was a very professional approach and he managed it marvellously for the majority of his career.
Where he really excelled, however, was with his interaction with the fans and the hours he spent each week signing autographs, for youngsters in particular. I witnessed it time after time, tucked away out of view of the television cameras – there would be Phil and a long line of kids and Phil stayed there till there was no longer a line. He has no equal in this regard and for me it was all the more impressive that it was done quietly, far away from the public’s gaze. He even learned to sign his name in Chinese to satisfy the demand for his signature when he plays out there.
For me, however, one of his trump cards this week was the dark glasses. For years Phil has been the consummate entertainer, connecting and interacting with the fans and too often we have seen his emotional barometer react and sync itself to the up-and-down responses and emotional rollercoaster of his fans. Not this time. Sure, he reacted to them, acknowledging their applause with his slightly goofy grin and trademark thumbs-up gesture, but this time he kept them at arm’s length mentally, not identifying with them. He wasn’t influenced by them nor deflected from his supreme focus on the task at hand. On this occasion this cool remove and isolation from the emotion around him was hidden behind the shades, yet his fans still felt included in their man’s tilt at history.
It was clinical mastery of achieving top sporting performance and a joy to witness.So, now, even before the dust has time to settle, the inevitable questions have started. Can he win the US Open at Torrey Pines next month, the one major still to elude him? That would make him only the sixth player to achieve the Career Grand Slam. How many more majors can he add to his tally of six?
Well, I, for one, refuse to get caught up in what may or may not happen. I prefer to sit back, ponder and enjoy having witnessed an historic, wonderful and inspiring golfing performance by a very special player. It was reputed he was offered $100 million by the Saudis to join the alternative golf tour they are attempting to set up. The price has just gone up.