PGA Championship 2021: How Phil Mickelson bent time and 17 other parting thoughts from Kiawah
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — It still doesn’t quite feel real. A 50-year-old man, who came into the week on a miserable run of results, won the PGA Championship on the longest golf course in major-championship history. We have so very much to talk about, so let’s get right into it. Here are 18 parting thoughts from the Ocean Course.
1: We start, as always, with the winner. Phil Mickelson has now broken the half-century barrier. A PGA Tour Champions-eligible player has won a major championship. My colleagues have covered his victory from virtually every angle, but I keep coming back to the age dynamic. Namely, the widening of a golfer’s championship window.
Most of the age-related discussion on tour in recent years has centered around the youngins. Armed with smarter workout routines, launch-monitor optimized games, data-based course-management systems and youthful hubris, kids strut out on tour ready to win from Day One.
This, then was the flip side of that conversation. The information revelation has made sports as a whole so much smarter, and the old guys are also reaping the spoils. Look at what Stewart Cink has been able to accomplish this year. Lee Westwood, too. Golfers used to have a 12-ish year window to fill their trophy mantle: roughly from age 26 to 38. It’s grown so, so much wider in recent years. And just as the record for oldest major winner was broken Sunday, the mark for youngest will inevitably fall. A teenager will win one of these things sooner than you think. What a sport.
2: The one shot I’ll remember most from the week was Phil’s drive Sunday on 16. He held firm control by that point, but it was far from over. Up ahead, Louis Oosthuizen had a makeable eagle putt that would’ve cut the lead to one, with the excruciating 17th still looming. Brooks Koepka played first in the final pairing and ripped a bullet draw down the center. It took a huge bounce and raced out to 361 yards. Phil was next. At this stage, every shot was the most important of the week; a foul ball there would’ve forced a layup, which would’ve made birdie much less likely. Instead, he unleashed a screaming cut that trickled out past Koepka’s ball. It went 366 yards, the longest drive on the hole for the week. And it did indeed lead to birdie.
Yes, Lefty was the Old Man in the arena. But there was nothing geriatric about that swing, that shot or his driving all week. Mickelson is still stupid long, and while he didn’t drive it quite as well Sunday as he had earlier in the week, he summoned his best of the day when he needed it most. As true champions do.
3: One more Phil item. He has officially played his way into the Ryder Cup picture. Winning a major tends to have that affect. Early projections suggest he will rise to No. 16 in the points standings, well outside the six auto-qualifying spots. If anything, that shows just how far down he was to begin with. There’s mountains of golf to be played between now and Whistling Straits, and whether Phil’s actually considered come August will depend largely on the future: Will this prove a one-week wonder or the start of a run? Either way, U.S. captain Steve Stricker has a situation on his hands, and leaving off a reigning major champion will not go down easy.
Members of the media photograph Phil Mickelson with the Wanamaker Trophy after his win on Sunday.
4: It’s kind of amazing that Phil only beat Koepka by one shot on Sunday, because Brooks played a truly head-scratching round. Bad shots are going to happen, but you cannot win majors making bad decisions. His choice to try to nuke a 3-wood out of the rough on 7 was bad. The 2-iron that plopped into a bunker 40 yards short of the green on 11 was awful. He has now squandered another opportunity to win a major championship to go with the 2019 Masters and 2020 PGA, and what’s more, his reputation as an elite closer is quickly taking on water. Last year at Harding Park, he talked trash on Saturday night then ejected early in the final round. On Sunday, a 71 would have given him his fifth major. Instead, he crumbled after an opening birdie, ultimately posting a tough-to-swallow 74. He’d never admit it, but you wonder if there’s some scar tissue in play now, and we’re not talking about his knee. His first handful of major-Sunday experiences were nothing but positive. Since then, it’s been a bit more complicated.
5: In some respects—mainly, age—Kiawah is a distinctly modern golf course. But its layout is as old-school as it gets: by the sea, with holes stacked vertically besides one another, half of them heading one way and half the other. It makes for a pretty brutal spectating experience, if we’re being honest. You can’t watch more than one hole at a time. Plus, the walk from the 14th tee to the fifth tee takes roughly an hour, and that’s if you’re walking with purpose. Fans (and lazy media members) have to be strategic with when they head out to the course and where they’re heading.
From a golf perspective, however, it presents a unique dynamic we don’t normally see on American golf courses: It’s entirely wind dependent. For the first six days of tournament week—Monday-Wednesday practice rounds, Thursday-Saturday competition rounds—the wind came form the east. As such, 1-4 played into the wind, No. 5 played cross, 6-13 played downwind and 14-18 turned back into the teeth of it. The rhythm of the rounds, then, played out in three parts. Hold on, make some birdies, hold the F on. On Sunday, the wind flipped, and so did the golf course. With the opening and closing stretches now downwind, the tenor became make some birdies, hold on, make some more birdies.
To have this switch happen on the eve of the final round of a major was chef’s-kiss type stuff from the Golf Gods. Says here the PGA of America would be smart to book a return trip here soon, if only to help break up the monotony of visiting tree-lined parkland tracks with juicy rough and lightening quick greens. This was a lovely change of pace.
6: If we’re going to complain about his special exemptions and constant presence on PGA Tour Live, then we have to acknowledge his good weeks. Them’s the rules. Perhaps armed with a little extra motivation to justify his invite, Rickie Fowler played four solid rounds to pick up his first top-10 at the PGA since January 2010. If not for a bogey on his 72nd hole, he would have finished with the top four needed to secure a Masters invite for 2022, which would have been great for his psyche simply by ending the endless media chatter. One week does not a comeback make, and Fowler’s still outside the top 100 in the world (up to 101st). But that was certainly a step in the right direction.
Rickie Fowler's solid play doesn't change the fact he's struggled lately but offers a sign that better days are ahead.
7: Organizers for the Super Golf League crashed the establishment’s party at Kiawah this week, hosting a clandestine meeting Tuesday night with high-powered agents. The goal: to convince them that everything’s moving along swimmingly with their big-money rival to the PGA Tour and that any potential issues would be taken care of swiftly. The agents left with a different outlook.
The general consensus seems to be that the project simply faces too many obstacles. The SGL goal, it would appear, is to upheave an entire sport, and it seems wholly unwilling to stop at anything less. If this was a straight money conversation, it would be no conversation at all; the PGA Tour cannot keep up with the Public Investment Fund. But it’s not a straight money issue; there are huge barriers to entry—history, the PGA Tour’s footprint, sponsors not wanting to ingratiate themselves with Saudi money, just to name a few. Are there problems with the tour’s current payment structure? Sure. Are they systemic, irreparable problems? No sir. Smart money says the top players will use the SGL as leverage and force the PGA Tour to make some significant tweaks to its current product. Then again, money talks. The more money, the louder it talks.
8: On the whole, the statistics revolution in golf has been a net positive. In some cases, it’s forced tour players and Average Joes to re-think strategy. We know now, for instance, that closer to the hole is essentially always better, and that math usually frowns on a layup. On the flip side, it’s provided quantifiable support for age-old axioms like play to the fat side of the green. Guys like Tiger followed the numbers without knowing it.
There is however, one drawback to the data takeover: It’s a total narrative killer. Consider Koepka’s comments after his third-round 70: “That was the worst putting performance I think I’ve had in my career.” Unfortunately for Brooksy, we have tools to fact-check that. Turns out, in making 94 feet of putts, he actually gained 0.087 strokes on the greens on Saturday. He putted better than tour average, and nearly a full shot better than he putted on Friday. In years past, we’d take Koepka’s words at face value. It’d be a lovely narrative, him heading to the putting green in the Saturday gloaming to wash away an all-time bad day on the greens. Only it’s demonstrably not true.
9: Is it possible that we undervalue the difference between PGA Tour layouts and major tests? It’s hard to imagine a more drastic week-to-week shift than TPC Craig Ranch, the bland, defenseless, borderline driving-range venue for last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson, and Kiawah. K.H. Lee shot 25 under to win the Nelson; at Kiawah, he shot 78-77 to miss the cut by six. Koepka missed the cut at the Nelson; he never left the first page of the leader board at the PGA. It’s almost a different sport. Koepka knows this, which is why he’s never fazed by how he plays in The American Expresses of the world. For him, they’re glorified tune-ups for the big-boy weeks.
10: Yet another clunker for Dustin Johnson. When you’re the reigning World No. 1 and you miss the cut in the first two majors of the year, including your title defense at the Masters, and you don’t have a top-10 in eight consecutive starts, then you, my friend, are slumping. There’s no one glaring weakness right now, either, which makes it a bit more concerning. Earlier in the month at the Valspar, his chipping went missing. At the WGC-Workday in February, he struggled mightily with a left miss off the tee. At Kiawah, he lost nearly two shots to the field with his approach play. The obvious answer here is he’s dealing with knee issues, but he doesn’t appear hampered. One reason for optimism is that DJ, for as consistently great as he’s been, is prone to his share of patchy stretches. He’ll be back and he’ll be fine, but we expected him to rip off a dominant run after finally getting that second major title in his breakneck end to 2020. Instead, he’s gone in reverse.
Dustin Johnson was the first golfer to be the World No. 1 and miss the cut in consecutive majors since Greg Norman in 1997.
11: Can we take the whole “new father has perspective/is a changed golfer” narrative and chuck it in the Atlantic? Jon Rahm gave reporters the spiel shortly after the birth of his first child: Golf doesn’t mean as much anymore, it’s opened his eyes to everything else in the world, yadda yadda yadda. We don’t doubt that’s true—having a child most definitely reshuffles your life, at least that’s what I’m told—and he’s probably a different guy when he gets back to the rental house than he was last year. It’s really more the media’s fault for playing up that narrative than anything else. But let’s not act like having a baby changes a golfer’s on-course identity one iota. Rahm still runs uncomfortably hot and remains one (perceived) slight away from a blowup.
On Friday, he chucked his club after rinsing his tee shot on 17. On Saturday, he knocked a microphone after a foul ball, then answered only one question in his post-round presser (then Sunday apologized for his terse brevity). It was a harmless one about course setup, and this is what he offered: “I don't know and I don't care, to be honest. I hit the ball tee to green as well as I could have for the most part and barely made any putts. And yeah, I'm not really happy, and to be honest, being in 40th place and finishing bogey-bogey like that, I really don't want to be here right now. I mean, clearly the scores are out there. It's very doable right now. 68, 67 is out there, it's possible. I had a very good chance. I just couldn't make a putt.”
So, so much perspective!
Jon Rahm never felt like he was truly in contention at Kiawah but still walked away with a top-10 finish.
12: There seems to be growing momentum against the “club” pros. We use quotation marks there because a lot of these guys really aren’t the grassroots faces of the game that the title implies. Omar Uresti, who won the PGA Professional Championship, made nearly 400 starts and $4 million on the PGA Tour. Ben Cook, one of two club pros to make the cut this week at Kiawah, has played full-time for a number of years. They aren’t quite representative of the majority of 28,000 members of the PGA of America they are made out to represent. This is the part where I call these guys frauds and call for an end to this kitschy practice of inviting 20 of them … right?
Nope. When it comes to the club pros, we all need to lighten up a little. There were 136 non-club professionals in the field; that’s between 40-50 more players than tee it up in the Masters in a given year. There is no shortage of touring professionals in the PGA Championship. After seeing first-hand the joy these “club” pros take in getting their week in the sun, in hitting balls between Rory and Jordan, in playing a practice round with DJ and Kuchar, I can’t muster the outrage. I just can’t. Every major has its quirk—the Masters its past champions, the U.S. Open and Open Championship its qualifiers, so why can’t the PGA of America’s tournament have their thing? Plus, two club pros made the cut this year, while the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the world missed it. Miss me with this “they just get embarrassed” routine.
13: Maybe it’s because Phil monopolized our attention all week, or perhaps it’s because CBS seemed more intent on showing Bryson DeChambeau putting on his shoes or Brooks walking to his ball than actual golf shots. Whatever the reason, it felt like there were an exceptional number of backdoor top-10s this week. Where the heck was Tony Finau, until he was on the first page of the leader board? Justin Rose? Paul Casey? There was also Rahm, who continues to make a habit of never-really-in-contention top-10s in majors. All this to say: It felt like we watched Phil, Brooks, Louis and Kevin Streelman on Sunday, and everyone else slipped from memory until you pulled up the leader board.
14: The funniest moment of the week, and maybe the hardest I’ve laughed on a golf course, came on Thursday. Finau had fanned his ball into the cabbage right of the 16th fairway. A 15-person search party ensued, frantically combing through the weeds as that three-minute clock ticked away. A man in gray shorts spotted a ball, turned around, and said: “Going to venture to guess it’s not a Titleist Velocity?” And now that I have typed this story, I’m beginning to realize that golf humor has to be the nerdiest humor there is. Still, a belly laugh.
15: Rangefinders were a topic of discussion this week. This was the first elite professional tournament that permitted their use in competition. Much was made in the lead-up over their impact on pace of play. Would they make it faster? Slower? People had opinions. Players, too. Justin Thomas came out against them, suggesting it devalued the good caddies out there. Players seemed hesitant to use them early in the week—these guys are big-time creatures of habit—but more and more guys turned to the guns as the week wore on. Their impact? Negligible. It did not devalue caddies, for finding a yardage really isn’t very difficult to begin with. It seemed like a nice convenience for guys. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t be surprised if they’re permitted in regular PGA Tour events soon. It’s just not a big deal one way or the other.
Players used rangefinders to supplement the pre-tournament work from caddies.
16: Speaking of creatures of habit … not a single sandy area was deemed a bunker this week. Not even, the perfectly round, bunker-as-hell bunkers in the 12th fairway, or the umpteen greenside ones. That meant players could ground their clubs at address without penalty. I was curious to see if guys would do this, because they’re so used to making bunker-shot motions starting with their club hovering over the ground. They certainly took practice swings that displaced sand, which wouldn’t normally be allowed, but I never caught one player grounding his club behind the ball for a sand shot. Muscle memory is a very powerful thing.
17: Mickelson wasn’t the only struggling old guy to turn back the clock this week. Padraig Harrington is something of an Irish Phil. He, too, refuses to go quietly into that dark night, unable to accept that his best days are behind him. He’s frequently the last guy on the range, training aids all up in his grill, grinding away. He’s the European Ryder Cup captain, but he might practice more than anyone who’ll be on his team. And, like Phil, you couldn’t help but wonder why he was doing it, seeing as his last top-10 on the PGA Tour came in January 2016. He finished tied for fourth at Kiawah. These guys’ unending self-belief continues to amaze. Especially when it pays off.
18: Photographers don’t get enough love. We writers use their work to give our stories life, and we sometimes take their excellence for granted. This, then, is a shout-out to Patrick Smith for one of the best golf photos I’ve ever seen. It’s of Phil holding the Wanamaker, but the framing and light make it a metaphorical haymaker. The proverbial (and literal) sun is setting behind Mickelson, between his legs. Father Time trying its best to turn off the lights.
But there Phil is, half a century old, with that big fat trophy in his arms. How can you not be romantic about golf?