Phil Me Up
The 2021 rendition of the PGA Championship was held at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Stretching almost 7,900 yards it was the longest venue in Major Championship history. When you add the possibility of almost gale like winds, this Pete Dye masterpiece was sure to test even the greatest players in the world.
That was immediately evident in Thursday’s opening round when three of the world’s Top 5 players all struggled and were in danger of missing the cut. World #’s 1 Dustin Johnson struggled with a 4-over 74 while #2 Justin Thomas and pre-tournament favorite, Rory McIlroy both shot pedestrian 75’s.
Equally surprising was the first-round leader, Canada’s Corey Conners whose 5-under 67 left him two shots clear of the field.
Five players were tried for second at 3-under. 2-time PGA winner Brooks Koepka, young Australian Cameron Davis, Norway’s’ Viktor Hovland, American Aaron Wise and 2011 winner Keegan Bradley.
Six players were a stroke behind at 2-under including defending Champion, Collin Morikawa and ageless 50-year-old superstar, Phil Mickelson who turned back the hands of Father time to join the young flat bellies and contend in a Major for the first time in 4 years. Joining Morikawa and Mickelson, were Korea’s SJ Im, Scotland’s Martin Laird and Americans Cameron Tringale and Kevin Streelman.
A crowd of 11 players were at 1-under on a day when the Ocean course was difficult but still rewarded good shots and good scoring was a possibility.
Mickelson continued to play Peter Pan on Day 3 with a pure Mickelson roller coaster round that counted 6 birdies and 3 bogies for a superb 3-under 69. That would be good enough for Lefty to be tied for the lead heading into the weekend with South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen at 5-under and one shot ahead of Koepka. Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama made the biggest move of the day with a 4-under 68, to be 3-under and tied for third with two other South Africans, Branden Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout.
First round leader Conners dropped back with a 3-over 75 to be in a tie for 7th with England’s Paul Casey, Americans Gary Woodland and Streelman and Im. Among the seven players a further shot back at 1-under was superstar Bryson DeChambeau while fellow luminaries, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth were barely able to make the cut at 3 and 4 over respectively, but still not out of it.
As if Kiawah needed more evidence of how treacherous it can be, Tringale who had played so well in the opening round ballooned to a 10-over 82 and missed the cut by a shot. Snooze at this place at your own peril.
A total of 81 players made the cut at 5-over but all were within 10 shots of the lead in a bunched-up field.
Halfway through Saturday’s third round, the biggest move on ‘moving day” came from the co-leader himself, Mickelson. Playing a flawless front-9 in 4-under the indefatigable Californian separated himself from the field and took command of the Championship with a 4-shot cushion over Oosthuizen, Koepka, Matsuyama and Grace. All of a sudden, the most unlikely of outcomes (Mickelson’s best finish in 2021 has been a tie for 21st at the Masters) was becoming more and more of a reality.
But then Phil did what Phil does and made a bogey on the 13th hole followed by a double bogey on the following hole to fall back to 7-under and just one ahead of Koepka and Oosthuizen. Mickelson would right the ship though and finished with four pars to record a 2-under 70 and that one shot advantage over Koepka heading into Sunday.
Oosthuizen was a stroke back at 5-under but had he been able to make any putts on Saturday he would have been in command of the Championship. Streelman was at 4-under with Grace and Bezuidenhout at 3-under. DeChambeau, Woodland and 22-year-old Chilean Joaquin Niemann followed at 2-under. Casey, Conners and Im were the last 3 players in red figures at 1-under par.
But it was Mickelson who would take the lead heading into Sunday’s final round conjuring up images of late-in-golf-life stars that had their hands firmly around a Major Championship in the twilight of their career. Tom Watson who so tragically lost the Open Championship on the last hole at Turnberry in 2009 and Greg Norman who at 52 took a two-shot advantage into the final round at Ryal Birkdale a year earlier before faltering.
Golf is truly a game for the ages. All of them.
In a see-saw opening six holes the lead in Sunday’s final round would change 4 times between Mickelson, Koepka and Oosthuizen before birdies by Mickelson on the 7th and 10th holes coupled by bogies from Koepka would stretch the Lead to 4 shots for Mickelson with 8 holes left to play.
But the difficulty of the Ocean course lies in the middle holes of the back 9 which were all playing into a strong 20 mph wind thereby making the stretch of 11-14 even more menacing. Consecutive bogies on 13 and 14 left Mickelson at 6-under, three in front of Oosthuizen and four ahead of Koepka.
Mickelson though steeled himself down the closing holes and after a two-putt par on the last hole, two shots clear of Koepka and Oosthuizen at 6-under par for the week and a triumph for the record books.
This is Mickelson’s second PGA Championship win with his first coming at Baltusrol in 2005 when Lefty clinched his second Major with a dramatic birdie on the 72nd hole to edge Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn by a single shot. It is his sixth Major victory and his 45th win on the PGA Tour ranking him 9th on the all-time winners list and he became the oldest player to ever win a Major.
It is certainly the most unlikely of his amazing career but perhaps also the most satisfying and a win for all time.