Early Sunday afternoon, it seemed like the defining shot of the PGA Championship had been preordained. Standing in a bunker just off the Kiawah Ocean Course’s par-3 fifth green, Phil Mickelson held his wedge in hand and took aim. Mickelson’s round had gotten off to a roller-coaster start (tell me if you’ve heard that before). He bogeyed the first and third holes with a birdie sandwiched between, and was trying to hold off challenger Brooks Koepka, who sat just one shot back. Mickelson has long been known for his soft touch and skill around the greens, but he’s also pretty well known for blowing major championship opportunities. And a stare down with Koepka, a four-time major winner, seemed like a prime opportunity for the 50-year-old to fumble another.
Instead, Phil confidently lobbed his ball into the air, raised his wedge with his right hand, and watched his bunker shot roll in for a birdie. CBS announcer Verne Lundquist, in typical Verne fashion, let out an epic “Oh my gracious,” half in celebration and half as a plea to the golf gods to take it easy now that they had a capital-M Moment to place in the history books.
"OH MY GRACIOUS!"— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) May 23, 2021
PHIL JUST DID THAT. pic.twitter.com/wA3hu2cNxG
It would have been too simple for Phil to take his two-stroke lead and coast to the finish line. No, things had to get more interesting. And the shot that really defined this tournament wouldn’t come for another 13 holes.
Stepping up to 18th tee, Mickelson held a two-stroke lead over Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen. All he had to do was minimize his chances of posting a big number, and he’d win his first major in eight years and set the record as the oldest major winner in golf history. But when has Phil ever gone for the less dramatic option?
Mickelson pounded a 348-yard drive past the left side of the fairway, nearly swinging out of his shoes in the process. The ball flew so far—and so off line—that it almost scooted into a sea of hospitality tents that marked the course’s left boundary. Fortunately, Phil got a playable lie, thanks to the troops of fans that had marched through that section over the preceding four days. But the shot was pure, distilled Mickelson: gutsy, stress-inducing, maybe just a little bit stupid—and above all, entertaining.
Throughout the 2021 PGA Championship, Mickelson reminded us that he has still never seen an aggressive line he won’t chase, a score he won’t endeavor to beat, or a course he isn’t ready to take on full bore. That’s part of what has endeared Lefty to generations of fans and golfers alike. But in the past few years, Mickelson has almost become more meme than man—dancing around in dress-shirt ads; hitting still-rolling balls at the U.S. Open; making home workout videos for the legions of people who want Calves Like Adonis—and Sunday marked a shift back to the Phil of old. It was almost as if the most entertaining man in golf remembered that winning major championships is still the most entertaining thing he can do.
For much of his 30-plus-year career, Phil has been golf’s cool uncle. The one who’ll sneak you a beer (probably an Amstel Light) when you’re still a teenager; who you can talk to about anything because he’s Seen Some Shit; who’ll always have a word of helpful—albeit unconventional—advice. While early Tiger Woods was the living embodiment of a superhero who told you if you ate your vegetables and listened to your parents you might one day grow up to be like him, Phil lived in his flaws and struggles and was more relatable because of it.
But sometime in the past five years or so, those eccentricities took center stage and made it harder to remember the Phil of before—the guy who won 44 PGA Tour tournaments, including five majors, had 196 top-10 finishes, and made more than $92 million on the course alone.
In came the Mizzen+Main commercials, in which a button-downed Mickelson danced across a green-screen driving range. The oh-so-perfectly-timed video of him driving down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National, talking about how his goal that week was to hit BOMBS. The Phireside Chats, sometimes with imaginary guests; even the sunglasses, which either make him look like an extra from Top Gun or an Everglades detective, depending on who you ask.
What many didn’t see, though, was that through all that memeability, Mickelson was undergoing an evolution. First came the physical transformation. In the past few years, Phil has put an increased emphasis on his health. He’s lost weight, gotten stronger, and seemed more comfortable in his skin—and all of these changes played a role in his round on Sunday.
Mickelson became the oldest major winner ever on one of the most demanding, wind-buffeted courses in the world. And not only did he beat the best field in golf—he dominated. Mickelson finished the week first in strokes gained tee to green, something that should be unheard of for someone of his age. And in one of the more telling shots from his Sunday round, he hit a 366-yard drive on no. 16, which was not only the longest drive on that hole all week (he outdrove Brooks Freaking Koepka by 5 yards) but also came on the 70th hole Mickelson had played in four days. That speaks to both the power he’s gained off the tee and the stamina he’s built up to keep him in the mix long term.
Outside of his physical changes, Mickelson has also used his ever-increasing fame to grow the game of golf and his own footprint on it—for better and, at times, for worse. Some of his best achievements of the past few years have been projects like the Match, especially the second edition, in which Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning provided the country with some much needed mid-pandemic entertainment. (Phil’s educational rants around the green are now something of legend, as is Brady splitting his pants in the middle of a rainstorm.) Of course, there are also Mickelson’s more controversial opinions, like his pseudo-support for a golf super league that would reportedly pay him $100 million but likely require him to turn his back on the PGA Tour and also get into business with Saudi Golf (and by extension Saudi Arabia, a country with an extensive history of human rights violations).
Mickelson has rightfully drawn criticism for entertaining the idea, but more than anything, he seems to be continuously searching for ways to expand his imprint on the game. That may seem silly for someone with Mickelson’s illustrious history. But Phil’s legacy will always be overshadowed by Woods. Even Rory McIlroy, when asked about his earliest Phil memory this week, said “I can’t remember because I was probably so focused on Tiger.”
Truly inspirational to see @PhilMickelson do it again at 50 years of age. Congrats!!!!!!!— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) May 23, 2021
On Sunday, though, there were no shadows for Mickelson to outrun but his own. Chants of “PHIL” and “LEFTY” erupted across the course. Following his approach shot at no. 18, Phil was mobbed by a sea of fans who ran up behind him to follow him to the green. At one point, Jim Nantz said the officials had “lost control of the scene” because things had grown so unruly.
The final scene at Kiawah turned to chaos because of Phil. Mickelson has long been seen as a no. 2 figure in golf, but on Sunday, he got the adoration he’s long deserved. It wasn’t an easy victory, and it wasn’t particularly graceful. But it sure as hell was entertaining—and as long as Phil’s the one on the tee, that’s usually the case.
An earlier version of this piece misstated when Mickelson’s ball was picked up.