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AN UNLIKELY OLD SOUL, MICKELSON TEACHES US ABOUT LIFE
With a reshaped body and recalibrated mind, he became the oldest player to win a major while raising renewed hopes of a career Grand Slam — but not before surviving a scary, superspreading mob scene.
What, no vertical leap? Couldn’t he have launched his famed spread-eagle jump, arms raised and mouth agape, and shouted to the golfing gods again? Now that he has blubber-blasted his Everyman core, stopped eating as much, developed beach biceps and escaped the mental cages of human aging, Phil Mickelson surely would have soared higher Sunday at 50 years, 11 months and seven days than he did 17 years earlier at Augusta National.
We’ll have to settle for how he survived thousands of superspreading loons on the 18th fairway at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, somehow emerging from the converging chaos with a thumbs-up signal that defines his newfound inner peace. If the security-challenged mob scene didn’t rattle him, maybe we all should be adopting his wellness plan.
‘‘Slightly unnerving, but exceptionally awesome,’’ said Mickelson, now best known as the oldest player to win a major championship.
Improbable as it seems, he is the new-age guru of sports, one-upping even Tom Brady in the mastery of body and mind. All we can ask, as we absorb the magnitude of his PGA Championship triumph, is how many more majors he might have won if he’d taken such good care of himself. ‘‘I don’t want to get all spiritual,’’ said Mickelson ... yet spiritual is the operative word here. I was at the Masters when Jack Nicklaus won a green jacket at 46. This was even more impressive, more inspirational, more telling about the power of purpose and self-discipline, even on the back nine of life.
‘‘You know, something sort of strikes me: Fifty years old is older than 46,’’ Nicklaus said in a congratulatory video. ``Well done, my friend.’’
The transformation is astonishing, right down to the bad-ass sunglasses, the tanned visage, the coffee blend that he brews, the diets that led to his dramatic weight loss and the ‘‘Phireside With Phil’’ chats on social media with celebrities and fellow players. This is not the Phil Mickelson we watched for decades, winning assorted majors with his massive talent but always in the shadow of Tiger Woods and known as much for his second-place finishes and epic implosions than his glories. He told his wife, Amy, that he wanted more from the game at an age when other greats look to the seniors tour or the broadcast booth.
In a monumental moment for golf, sport and life itself, he forged a historic breakthrough that no one else saw coming. After securing his two-stroke win over Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen, he simply lifted both arms and saluted the fans who could have suffocated him. Koepka blasted the lack of security and suggested a fan or two tried to intentionally injured his surgically repaired knee, with CBS’ Jim Nantz having to interrupt his fairy-tale call by saying, ‘‘They’ve lost control of the scene.’’ Fortunately, the idiots didn’t mar an all-time memory. Mickelson’s victory reaction was age-appropriate, but it didn’t lessen the rush that fell over his body.
‘‘This is just an incredible feeling because I believed it was possible, but everything was saying it wasn’t,’’ he said, standing beside the Wanamaker Trophy. ‘‘I don’t know to describe my feelings of excitement and fulfillment. I hope others find that inspiration. There’s no reason you can’t accomplish goals at an older age. It just takes more work.’’
That is especially true on a golf course, which doesn’t involve contact that Brady must avoid on a football field and LeBron James couldn’t avoid Sunday in a playoff game, tumbling over close friend Chris Paul in what Lakers coach Frank Vogel described as ‘‘dangerous’’ and ‘‘a dirty play.’’ As Woods, watching from his Florida home down the Atlantic coast, hopes just to walk again as he recovers from devastating leg injuries in a horrific SUV accident, Mickelson now looks to swell his legacy. Imagine if he returns next month to the course of his youth, Torrey Pines near San Diego, and wins the U.S. Open — the one major that has eluded him.
Imagine a sixth major title at 50, a career Grand Slam at 51.
‘‘It’s very possible this is the last tournament I ever win, but it’s also very possible I’ve had a breakthrough in some of my focus,’’ he said, embracing the dream. ‘‘`Maybe I go on a little bit of a run. There’s no reason why I or anyone else can’t do it at a later age. There’s no reason the game of golf can’t be a game for a lifetime. If you take care of your body with all the physiology that’s out there, you can get your body to function right and play for a lifetime.’’
Is it me, or is this a self-help book tour waiting for an itinerary? ‘‘Working harder is the deal,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve had to work harder physically to be able to practice as long as I’ve wanted, and I’ve had to work a lot harder to maintain mental focus. My desire to play is the same as always. I’ve never been driven by an exterior thing, but I have been intrinsically driven by the competition and my love of the game. The belief I still could do it inspired me to work harder. I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done.’’
If he remains a dozen shy of Nicklaus’ majors total and can’t counter the reality that Woods produced the greatest golf ever played, Mickelson can say this: No one has extended his triumphant prime for a longer period. He did so despite slipping to No. 115 in the world rankings, coming into the week as a 200-1 longshot and having no major victory since 2013 or top-10 major finish since 2016. Two weeks ago, he opened the Wells Fargo Championship with a 64, then shot 75, 76 and 76. Phil was Phading. More Phireside chats awaited.
He told himself to focus. It might have sounded trite and Anthony Robbins-like, but now that his body is fit — do we dare say chiseled? — Mickelson turned to meditation and breathing. Before shots all weekend, you saw him closing his eyes, visualizing and focusing, all but dropping a yoga mat into the tee box. The wind conditions were diabolical, yet while younger stars fell off the leaderboard as usual, the old man kept hitting fairways and greens and not sabotaging himself as we’ve seen in big moments. ‘‘There were no foul balls,’’ Jason Day said. ‘‘`Usually with Phil, you can get some pretty wild ones, but he kept it straight out in front of him.’’
Even when distracted by technology, Mickelson remained composed. When a drone disrupted him Saturday in a back bunker, he calmly told a CBS worker, ‘‘Can you radio to the TV guys to get the drone out of the flight of my shot?’’ Of course, he saved par.
By late Sunday, it was obvious Koepka’s missing putter would prevent him from a challenge. Mickelson was sending a chilling message to golf’s young bucks, just as Woods did when he returned from the dregs to win the Masters two years ago. Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are under 30. Rory McIlroy is 32. Dustin Johnson is 36. Why did they let the old man beat them and make a bigger headline than they’ve ever made? Bryson DeChambeau was supposed to revolutionize golf with carb-bloating and weight gain, but Mickelson is smarter about what to put in his body — and ripped the week’s longest drive when he needed it most, 366 yards on the par-5 16th.
‘‘`I believed for a long time I could play at this level,’’ Mickelson said. ‘‘I just wasn’t executing the way I could. I’ve been able to stay more in the present and more focused. Physically, I’ve been striking it as well as ever, but I haven’t been able to see that clear picture. It’s just the ability to quiet my mind and get rid of the exterior noise.’’
And what does the New Phil miss most about the Old Phil?
‘‘Food,’’ he said, smiling. ``I’ve got to eat a lot less and got to eat better. I’ve got to let my body recover. It’s been a blessing. I feel much better, don’t have inflammation and wake up feeling good. It’s been a sacrifice worth making.’’
He couldn’t stop praising his brother, Tim, the caddy who told him at No. 7, ‘‘`If you’re going to win this thing, you’ve got to make committed golf swings.’’ He couldn’t stop praising his coach, Andrew Getson, who fixed his swing over time. But this mostly was a victory for his wife, Amy. He was her rock when she had breast cancer, winning the 2010 Masters in her honor. When he hit his mid-life crisis, she has been his rock.
On the phone with her minutes after his grandest moment, he said, ‘‘I miss you. I love you very much. I’ll see you tonight.’’
If this was the famous final scene of Phil Mickelson, it was, to quote him, exceptionally awesome. I suspect the curtain hasn’t fallen yet in the theatre. He has more drama in store, maybe a vertical leap, as he heads to the gym and the salad line.
Jay Mariotti, called ``the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes regular sports columns and a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and appears on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.