KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Phil Mickelson was so focused on the task at hand Sunday that it was understandable he might not have had time to grasp all the various things he accomplished with his PGA Championship victory.
Perhaps that is part of the reason for his success at the Ocean Course. He managed to push aside those troublesome issues that have long plagued him in tournament golf, doing what was necessary to win on one of the most demanding courses he will face.
“It’s been an incredible day, and I’ve not let myself kind of think about the results until now, now that it’s over,” Mickelson said in a post-tournament news conference. “I’ve tried to stay more in the present and at the shot at hand and not jump ahead and race. I’ve tried to shut my mind to a lot of stuff going around. I wasn’t watching TV. I wasn’t getting on my phone. I was just trying to quiet things down because I’ll get my thoughts racing and I really just tried to stay calm.
“I believed for a long time that I could play at this level again. I didn’t see why I couldn’t, but I wasn’t executing the way I believed I could. With the help of a lot of people, my wife [Amy] especially, [coach] Andrew Getson and my brother Tim and [agent] Steve Loy, I’ve been able to make progress and have this week.
“It’s very exciting because I’ve had a few breakthroughs on being able to stay more present, be able to stay more focused, and physically, I’m striking it and playing as well as I ever have but I haven’t been able to see that clear picture. Although I believed it, until I actually did it, there was a lot of doubt, I’m sure.”
Among his other feats, Mickelson’s gap between first and last victories — 30 years, four months — is the longest in PGA Tour history. He also became the oldest major champion at 50 years, 11 months. And he is the first player ranked outside of the top 50 in the world to win a major since Keegan Bradley did so at the 2011 PGA Championship.
And his 45th PGA Tour victory tied him with Walter Hagen for eighth most in tour history.
Mickelson was ranked 115th coming into the week, and has now moved to 30th in the world.
So much for that special exemption the United States Golf Association gave him on May 14. His win means a five-year invite to the lone major championship he has yet to claim.
Now it will be interesting to see how he prepares for the major where he’s been a runner-up six times. Mickelson said he will play the Charles Schwab Challenge this week in Fort Worth, Texas, then spend two weeks at home preparing for the U.S. Open. Some time at Torrey Pines will likely be part of the run-up.
“It’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win,” Mickelson said. “Like if I’m being realistic. But it’s also very possible that I may have had a little bit of a breakthrough in some of my focus and maybe I go on a little bit of a run, I don’t know. But the point is that there’s no reason why I or anybody else can’t do it at a later age. It just takes a little bit more work.”
Here are some other things we learned after a memorable week at Kiawah Island.
There was considerable consternation when Rickie Fowler received a special exemption to play in the PGA Championship. He was well outside of the top 100 in the world. Other players ranked higher did not get an invite.
Never mind that the PGA of America typically has numerous exemptions to extend; this year it gave 38. Fowler, who has not won in more than two years, had slipped to 128th in the world after missing the cut last week at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
His major streak that dated to the 2010 Masters was snapped when he failed to make the field at Augusta National in April. The PGA was a reprieve, but he’s also in danger of missing the U.S. Open.
But Fowler showed some life this week. On a brutal course that punished poorly struck shots, Fowler, 32, found a bit of his putting magic that had been missing and for a time flirted with a top-5 finish. In fact, his only bogey on Sunday came at the 18th, dropping him from a tie for fourth to a tie for eighth, costing him an automatic spot in next year’s Masters.
Still, the tie for eighth was his best finish since a tie for fifth at the 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions. And he moved up to 101st in the world. He would need to be in the top 60 following the Memorial Tournament, which ends on June 6, in order to get an automatic exemption to the U.S. Open. Otherwise, Fowler said he will go through 36-hole qualifying.
He wasn’t making any excuses. Brooks Koepka, if anything, has downplayed the injuries that have plagued him for a good part of the past 18 months. The latest knee problem required surgery on March 16. He came back at the Masters and missed the cut. He missed the cut at the Byron Nelson. Those four rounds were the total of his competitive golf since late February.
A visibly annoyed Brooks Koepka says his knee was hit a few times after he and Phil Mickelson were engulfed in the 18th fairway.
Koepka said he was ready to go at the Masters. He said the same thing this week at Kiawah Island. But he clearly wasn’t prepared and was still hurting at Augusta National, and it seemed he willed himself near the top of the leaderboard at the PGA Championship. The magic finally disappeared on Sunday, when Koepka could not buy a putt.
Is that the fault of his knee? No, but there were bound to be some struggles — and they came on the greens Sunday. Koepka’s longest putt was the 13-footer for birdie he made on the first hole to lead briefly. After that, he missed three inside of 5 feet.
“I’m super disappointed, pretty bummed. I’m not happy,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a right word I can say on here without getting fined, but it hurts a little bit. It’s one of those things where I just never felt comfortable over the putts. I don’t know why, what happened.
“I spent all weekend, the weekend before working on it and it was great, and you know, just overdid it. I was trying to get my hands a little lower and ended up getting my hands too far low one under and actually ended up getting further away from the ball. The last nine, I just tried to go back to what I’ve always done and I felt like I was hitting better putts. I just wish I would have done it sooner.”
Koepka’s putting problems aside, he also put himself in some tough spots on Sunday. That he put himself in contention with a change after all he has endured should not be overlooked.
Rory McIlroy’s victory at the Wells Fargo Championship ended an 18-month drought, but it came with a few flaws that were exposed at Kiawah Island. Long a hallmark of his game, McIlroy’s driving was poor at Quail Hollow. There, though, he saved himself with some exceptional putting. At the PGA, he paid for those mistakes off the tee and with a mediocre iron game. His putting, too, became an issue.
“I didn’t understand those high expectations,” said McIlroy, who won the PGA at Kiawah in 2012 and entered this event as the betting favorite. “It was good to get a win at Quail Hollow, a course that I’ve always played well on and am comfortable on. … I didn’t feel like playing well here nine years ago was going to automatically make me play well again, and I felt like my game was — I felt like coming in here there was still parts of my game that I needed to sharpen up, and obviously those parts were exposed this week in the wind and on a tough course.”
About the Ocean Course
The 1991 Ryder Cup was a classic, and McIlroy’s 2012 PGA Championship victory was marred by traffic woes and thunderstorms that seemed to overwhelm the tournament. That was the lasting memory, and many cringed when a return was announced for 2021 at a place that is always going to be difficult to reach.
But Mickelson’s victory and the captivating tournament will push all that aside. Moving to May made for a more robust test, especially with barely a drop of rain. The wind did its part, blowing every day and then changing directions on Sunday to add a new wrinkle. The fact that the winning score was just 6 under par and that there were no cries of unfairness speaks very well.
Many of the PGAs over the next decade are awarded, but there is some talk of returning here in 2030. Perhaps some juggling will take place, but the PGA will return and don’t be surprised if way down the road the Ocean Course gets another Ryder Cup.
Coming very soon … the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open will be here quickly. The first days of practice are just three weeks away. That doesn’t leave much time to get things figured out if you are struggling. Many will play the Memorial Tournament next week as prep. And for No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Justin Thomas and No. 6 Xander Schauffele, will that be enough? Each surprisingly missed the cut at the PGA.
Johnson has been on a mildly troubling run since he won the Saudi International on the European Tour in February. He did tie for eighth at the Genesis Invitational, but has not been in the top 10 in seven tournaments since that result. He’s also missed the cut at the Masters and PGA, becoming the first No. 1-ranked player to miss the cut at the first two majors since Greg Norman in 1997.
Thomas has also had a number of lackluster results since winning the Players Championship with such a great final round.
And Schauffele, who tied for third at the Masters and was 14th at the Wells Fargo, couldn’t find his game at the Ocean Course.
The U.S. Open begins June 17.