PITTSFORD — Ten years ago, Phil Mickelson arrived here for the PGA Championship with golf’s ugly albatross hanging around his neck: “Best player never to win a major.’
It was the next-to-last time Mickelson carried that burden into a major. The following April, “Lefty” knocked in a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to beat Ernie Els by a stroke in the Masters, ending an 0-for-42 drought in majors and putting to rest the notion that he couldn’t win the big one.
Today, Mickelson returns to Oak Hill’s fabled East Course as a star transformed. The man once perceived as his sport’s most notorious underachiever has become its happy, resilient survivor, a superstar who is playing the best golf of his life in competitive middle age.
Three weeks ago at Muirfield, Mickelson won his first British Open, charging from behind with a 5-under par 66 in the final round. It was a stunning performance, one that surprised even Mickelson, who had come to believe he would never win on the links-style layouts of Britain.
Suddenly, it’s fashionable to talk about Mickelson becoming the sixth man to achieve a modern grand slam. He has won three Masters, a PGA and a British. He has finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times, including this year at Merion.
Mickelson turned 43 on Sunday at Merion. By winning the British Open, he became the 11th man to win a major after his 43rd birthday. No man has done it twice. So if Lefty wins this week at Oak Hill, he’ll be the oldest man to win consecutive majors — and the first to win two after turning 43.
Oh, and he’s not even the favorite this week. That distinction, as always, goes to Tiger Woods. Woods, who won easily in the Bridgestone Invitational last week, is a heavy 7-2 favorite. He’s the No. 1 player in the world. Woods has won five times on tour this year.
But while Woods is the supposed smart money, he’s a tenuous choice. He hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. That’s a streak of 21 majors without a win. A gambler might regard Woods with a wary eye, as he would one of those highly ranked players (Luke Donald, say) whose ranking never translates in majors.
Woods, who turns 38 in December, has not won a major since turning 33. His personal and competitive struggles have been well-documented. Early in majors, he plays like the old Tiger. On weekends, it has been a different story.
Over the last five years, Woods has faltered late in all four majors. He shot 75 on Sunday at the 2009 PGA, allowing Y.E. Yang to win. He faded at the U.S. and British opens in 2010. Tiger fell off the pace with a 74 on Saturday at the ’11 Masters. He led halfway through the U.S. Open and PGA last year, but faltered badly. He stumbled on Sunday last month at the British.
Still, Woods is the favorite this week. Over the years, I’ve found that it’s unwise to underestimate him. I still consider him the best player ever. He has risen above the public’s creeping doubts in the past.
In fact, Tiger was being chased by doubt when he came to Oak Hill in 2003. He was No. 1 in the world, same as today. He had won four times that year, and was quick to remind us. But he had gone 10 majors without winning, and there was talk of a slump and whether he was losing his edge.
On the eve of that ’03 PGA Championship, I asked Woods if he was beginning to doubt that he would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, a goal he had set as a boy. Woods said “No,” without hesitation. He was confident he would get a lot more chances.
Woods made good on his assertion. He won the 2005 Masters, beginning a stretch of six major titles in 14 attempts, through his 2008 U.S. Open win in a playoff over Rocco Mediate. At that point, I was convinced Woods would pass Nicklaus and still be winning majors well in his 40s.
Instead, he and Mickelson have reversed roles. Woods can’t win the big ones and Lefty is maturing into a better, wiser and more confident player in his 40s.
Mickelson is stronger and healthier. He has his proriatic arthritis under control. As he showed at Muirfield, where he didn’t carry a driver in his bag, he knows his limitations.
The competition is deeper than ever. But players are more capable of winning at an older age. The last three British Open winners (Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson) were 42 or older. We’re going to see more players in their mid-40s winning the big one.
Mickelson might achieve more in his 40s than any golfer in history. If his health and desire hold up, he could be the first to win a major at 50. I used to say that about Woods, but nagging injuries seem to be catching up to him. This year, it was an elbow injury that dogged him at Merion.
There’s a rejuvenated quality about Mickelson these days. He called his win at Muirfield the “most fulfilling” of his career. He seems to have found a new enthusiasm for competition. He wants to test this new, mature Lefty and see how much he can accomplish.
“You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it,” Phil said in a news conference the morning after the British. “After losing the U.S. Open it could have easily gone south. But I looked at it and thought I was playing really good golf. I had been playing some of the best in my career.”
Jim “Bones” Mackay, who has been Mickelson’s caddie for 21 years, said his man always looks forward. Mackay said after the British that Mickelson is stronger and fitter than ever, and hungrier to win.
“I mean, he’s 43 years old and getting better,” Mackay said. “I don’t care how old he is. I joke around with him all the time. When he’s 60-something years old, he’s going to be on that putting green at Augusta thinking he’s got a chance.”
Golf fans, who adore Mickelson, would love to see their hero play at his best as he approaches 50. It will be even more compelling if Woods starts winning majors again and revives his unremarkable rivalry with Mickelson.
We’ve waited years, but the rivalry has given us few epic moments. Maybe this will be the week when they both live up to their ranking and battle one another to the end of Sunday at Oak Hill. It’s about time that Woods reminded us of his greatness on the weekend of a major.
Lefty has often said that Woods pushed him to be a better player. Maybe a little nudge from Mickelson is just what the old rivalry needed to make it seem new and exciting again.