By: Sam Gemini
MADISON – The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island had all its claws out last weekend. Twenty mile-per-hour winds whipped across the vast expanse of swamp and sand dunes that hug the Atlantic coast of South Carolina. Number-one-in-the-world Dustin Johnson may have gotten off easy by missing the cut and going home on Friday – each and every hole was an absolute grind on the course that was ranked by Golf Digest as the most difficult in the country.
All the usual names headlined the 2021 PGA Championship at the start of play on Thursday: Rory McIlroy was coming off his first win in over a year; Jordan Spieth had been playing great golf; and Brooks Koepka was returning from injury. But nobody – and I mean nobody – expected to see Phil Mickelson holding the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday evening.
Coming into the week with forty-four career wins total and five major victories, Phil was already a legend of the game. One of the most popular players golf has ever seen, many fans simply refer to Mickelson as “The Lefty.” At age fifty, however, any hopes for adding to that win total were extremely low. Past his prime, Mickelson has been faltering on Tour for the past couple of years, as is to be expected at his age. He continues to play in majors due to exemptions earned from past victories, and often provides an entertaining couple of rounds before missing the cut or hanging around the bottom of the leaderboard on the weekend. Expectations were similar last week – that is, until the Lefty shot up the leaderboard on Friday to enter the third round in a tie for first with South African Louis Oosthuizen.
A very solid third round of seventy (two under-par) had Phil in sole possession of the lead heading into the final round, with four-time major champion and two-time PGA Champion Brooks Koepka nipping at his heels just one shot back. Sunday was an instant classic that began with a wild first ten holes that included four two-shot swings, a three-shot swing and multiple lead changes. The round featured nine straight holes that played directly into the wind – Phil and Brooks trading birdies and bogeys all the while.
When, at long last, the players reached hole fourteen and turned back downwind, Mickelson held a three-shot lead. But he couldn’t let his guard down just yet, as these final five holes made up a terrifying stretch of golf through the wispy dunes lying directly on the Atlantic coast – breath-takingly gorgeous but potentially disastrous. The lead shrunk to a mere two shots down this stretch with the monstrous seventeenth looming – a 223-yard par-three that played half a stroke over-par all week and brought about dozens of double- and triple-bogeys. Phil survived the rippling lake at this penultimate hole and strutted to the long, slithering ocean finish.
With a two-stroke lead, par would be enough for the legend to make history. After missing the fairway off the tee, Mickelson flushed a short iron for a towering shot of perfection to about twenty feet from the hole. The roar that followed this shot was the loudest heard at a golf tournament in years – a sound of sweet relief after an entire summer and fall without spectators.
The gallery flooded onto the fairway to follow the leader to the green, surrounding the putting surface like a see of shouting faces around a short-grass island. All that remained was for the Lefty to two-putt to victory amid the sound of thunderous cheers and applause. There have been over 400 major golf tournaments in history; until Sunday, there had never been a fifty-year-old major champion – in fact, there had only been one other instance in history where a fifty-year-old held the lead at a major after two days. What took place in the dunes of Kiawah Island on the twenty-third of May in 2021 will be a legend forever. We’ve never seen it before, and we may never see it again. Perhaps Phil can carry this momentum to Torrey Pines in La Jolla – just outside of his home town of San Diego – on Father’s Day weekend at the U.S. Open, where he has finished second place a record six times – the only major that eludes him for the career grand slam.