KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Phil Mickelson is serious about getting on top of his focus issues. After jumping out front at the PGA Championship on Friday, he agreed to take just three questions from reporters waiting to grill him about his standing atop the leaderboard and his quest for a sixth major championship.
An extra query slipped through, one which Mickelson happily answered before going on his way to enjoy the afternoon and soak in the glory of his unlikely spot heading into the weekend at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
Fewer mind-probing questions, more concentration on the task at hand.
Whatever works for Mickelson, who shot 3-under-par 69 during the second round, then saw 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen take the lead then fall back into a tie with him after a final-hole bogey on another bluster day beside the Atlantic Ocean.
With 36 holes left, there is just one big question: Can Phil Mickelson stay there?
He’ll have Oosthuizen playing with him. Right in front of him, one shot behind, will be two-time PGA Championship winner and four-time major champion Brooks Koepka.
The focus issues, which he vaguely describes and often cites as the reason for lackluster play, dates a couple of years. It came into play a few weeks ago when he shot an opening-round 64 at the Wells Fargo Championship, only to follow with scores of 75, 76, 76. In each of those three rounds, Mickelson hit it in the water at the par-3 17th hole.
Surely that’s not all down to swing mechanics?
A man going on 51 is not supposed to contend in major championships. There’s a reason it is rare — he’s the first 50-plus golf to hold the lead at any major since Fred Couples did it at the 2012 Masters — and zeroing in on the task at hand could very well be part of the problem.
Because when you look at other aspects of Mickelson’s game, age is hardly a factor.
While he might not be as sharp as he was as a 30-something hotshot, he still hangs with the best in the game.
Mickelson is averaging better than 311 yards on the measured driving holes through two rounds and leads the field in strokes gained tee-to-green. He is also third in strokes gained off the tee.
That is impressive for someone who gives up some 20 years to players such as Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson — who missed the cut — is 14 years younger. Rory McIlroy is 18 years younger.
So the physical skills remain, certainly enough to be competitive.
A 44-time winner on the PGA Tour, Mickelson has been in the World Golf Hall of Fame for nearly a decade. Until 2019, he had not missed a U.S. Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team since 1993. For some 25 years, he was ranked among the top 50 in the world.
It is the mental side that even Mickelson has questioned, although the Kiawah Island course and all of its diabolical conditions might actually be more beneficial than hindrance.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” said Harrington, the European Ryder Cup captain and three-time major winner. “In the position he is, I expect him to contend and I wouldn’t put it past him being there at the end of the week, for sure.
“He has the bit between his teeth. I think he believes he can do it in these conditions, just like myself. Phil would find it easier to compete on this style of golf course in these conditions in a major tournament all the time. You can be patient on these courses, and obviously you’ve got to make a few birdies. But it suits somebody who is a player, somebody who is thinking.”
Harrington, 49, is a keen observer and one who goes back a long way with Mickelson. He recounted their first competition together, the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock. They’ve been Ryder Cup opponents and played in plenty of major championships together.
The Irishman likes to tinker, and has long sought ways to improve and defy age. That’s not much unlike Mickelson, who for all his oddities — diets, coffee, long-sleeved golf shirts — has remained mostly injury free and competitive into his senior golf years.
“From watching from the outside with Phil, if it’s not a good week, he’s going to push no matter what. He’s not here to make the cut. He’s not here to finish … even 15th would disappoint. You know what? Even second would be a disappointment for Phil.”
The last time Mickelson finished that high in a major championship was in 2016, when he was runner-up to Henrik Stenson at The Open at Royal Troon. That was a tough-luck week for Mickelson, who opened the tournament with a 63 and ran into a player hotter than him. He beat the rest of the field by 11 strokes.
But he’s not been in the top-10 at a major championship since Troon.
A few things to watch on Saturday. First up is the driving. Mickelson has been known to spray some unsightly tee shots.
“There were no foul balls,” Day said. “Usually with Phil, you can get some pretty wide ones.”
Then there’s the propensity for big numbers. Avoiding double bogeys is obviously important. When Mickelson hit his approach in the water at the 13th hole Friday, he dropped and from 141 yards nailed his fourth shot to less than a foot to save bogey. At Quail Hollow two weeks ago, Mickelson made five doubles.
The last thing, of course, are the focus issues.
“I’m making more and more progress by trying to elongate my focus,” said Mickelson, who added that sometimes he now plays more than 18 holes in a day in an effort to focus on every shot, thus making it easier over a regular round.
Again, whatever works.
Mickelson is 115th in the world for a reason, with just two top-20 finishes in the past two years. He’s nearly three years older than the oldest major champion, Julius Boros, who was 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA. And it’s been more than five years since a player in his 50s — Davis Love III in 2015 at the Wyndham Championship — won on the PGA Tour.
Then there is the chasing pack. Oosthuizen, Koepka, regining Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and U.S Open champion Bryson DeChambeau are all in striking distance. They’re unlikely to be intimidated by Mickelson. But he still resonates, still matters.
“He’s still Phil Mickelson to me,” Cameron Smith said. “He can show up and he knows that he can still win. He talks the talk.”
Except when he doesn’t want to talk too much.
For him, it’s time to focus.