There was much about the 103rd playing of the PGA Championship that felt familiar.
The spectacular Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina was hosting the event for the second time in less than a decade — Rory McIlroy had captured his second major at the Pete and Alice Dye design back in 2012, crushing the field with a devastating demonstration of championship golf.
After a year without spectators (due to the pandemic), PGA of America officials welcomed galleries, albeit smaller ones, back into the fold. It was announced that somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 fans would be able to attend the event, and a buzz started well before the first shot was played. Overall, the game was enjoying a spike in popularity akin to when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson helped drive the sport decades prior, and this resurgence pushed demand for the few available tickets to an all-time high.
But Woods was still recovering from a near-fatal rollover car crash with fans clinging to hope that he’d again be able to walk. And Mickelson was a handful of weeks from his 51st birthday, so surely he wouldn’t be able to compete with a younger crop of superstars that included McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland, right?
And what about Brooks Koepka, who had hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy two of the three previous years? There was little to believe that Koepka would threaten again after undergoing knee surgery in March. Although the former Florida State star had made appearances at both the Masters and the AT&T Byron Nelson leading up to the PGA Championship, he missed the cut in both events. Koepka’s surgeons had told him he wouldn’t be fully healed until late summer, so expecting him to challenge was a longshot.
But again, this event had a sense of familiarity — and when the first day was done, the four-time major champion toured Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in 69 shots to grab a share of the early lead. Koepka made six birdies to yet again position himself atop the leaderboard in one of golf’s four more important championships.
“It’s a major. I’m going to show up. I’m ready to play,” Koepka said. “I feel so much better now. I don’t need to be 100 percent to be able to play good.”
“I felt like I already had confidence. In my mind, it’s just a major week. Just show up. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
Over the previous four years, Koepka has shown up for majors more reliably than any of golf’s elite players, although a series of speed-bumps — knee, hip and neck ailments, plus a split with his longtime coach Claude Harmon III — had slowed his charge of late. His opening 69 marked the first time he’d put himself into the frame in a major since last summer’s PGA Championship in San Francisco, a spell in which he missed the U.S. Open due to injury and failed to factor in two Masters.
Koepka found only five of 14 fairways in blustery conditions on the Ocean Course but hit 13 of 18 greens, good enough to rank first in Strokes Gained: Approach through the early wave of players. The winds raked across the barrier island, making for tricky playing conditions, and the first-round scoring average when Koepka signed his card was 74.54. Koepka didn’t end the day atop the leaderboard — Corey Conners shot a 67 in the late wave to take those honors — but he did sit in a tie for second in a sextet that included Keegan Bradley, Cam Davis, Sam Horsfield, Viktor Hovland and Aaron Wise
“I love it when it’s difficult. I think that’s why I do so well in the majors,” Koepka said. “I just know mentally I can grind it out. You’ve just got to accept it and move on.”
While Koepka came to the PGA Championship hoping to use fortitude as his main weapon, Conners was hoping to use some of the mathematical acumen he’d picked up while earning a Bachelor of Science in Actuarial Mathematics from Kent State University.
The Canadian’s keen decision-making and analysis worked just fine on Thursday as he figured out his way around the Ocean Course in just 67 strokes.
“I’d say it’s impossible to be stress-free around this golf course. You can’t fall asleep out there on any holes. It’s very challenging,” Conners said. “I was fortunate to have a good day. Made it as least stressful as possible on myself. I hit a lot of really good shots and holed some nice putts early in the round, and that really helped boost the confidence. Played with a lot of freedom.”
The Ocean Course was just the most recent big stage in golf that Conners has performed well on. He finished third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, seventh in the Players Championship and tied for eighth in the Masters leading up to the PGA Championship. He’d been a regular on the first page of leaderboards for a few months now while seeking his first major title and second PGA Tour victory. He’d also made a steady rise up the world rankings, climbing from No. 196 when he won the 2019 Valero Texas Open to No. 39 heading into this event.
“I have a lot of belief in myself, and I’ve been playing well for quite a while,” Conners said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to play against the best players in the world and put my game to the test. I have a lot of confidence in my game and I’m excited for the rest of the weekend.
“I think one of most important things is the short game around this place,” he said. “A lot of major championships you can’t ball-strike your way to good rounds. You need to have a good short game. You need to get the ball up and down and you need to roll in birdie putts. Good ball-striking definitely helps. The wind and difficulty of the golf course, hitting it solid is very important.”
On Friday, many of the biggest names were sent packing — Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele to name a few — but one of the event’s charms came into the spotlight as PGA teaching professionals Brad Marek and Ben Cook qualified for the weekend.
A 37-year-old teaching pro from the Northern California PGA Section, Marek posted a 1-over 73 Friday and 2-over 146 for the championship (T-32). Cook, 27, PGA Director of Instruction at Yankee Springs Golf Course, in Wayland, Michigan, was leaking oil on the closing stretch of the Pete Dye layout, but managed to par the final two holes to make the cut on the number (72-77—149) for the first time in three appearances.
“It’s been a cool week,” Cook said. “I’m out here on the putting green hitting putts next to my heroes, and I have a great support team here. I feel very blessed.”
Marek, who played college golf at Indiana, competed professionally for nine years on a variety of tours, winning 15 times in that span, including a couple of times on the Dakotas Tour.
“I chased mini-tours nine or 10 years after college, always with the goal of trying to get out here. Obviously didn’t attain that via the regular route, but as soon as I was done playing, I knew I wanted to be a part of the PGA for the opportunities like this on the playing side,” he said.
Marek, who tied for eighth at his first PGA Professional Championship to earn a spot in this week’s field, runs his own junior golf academy out of Corica Park in Alameda, California, for players with aspirations of playing college golf.
“Everybody in that has a goal of trying to move up to the next level in terms of their golf,” he said.
Speaking as much for Cook as for himself, Marek explained why it was important for two of the 20 club professionals in the field to make the cut.
“Any time one of us can make the cut, I think it’s really good for,” Marek said. “I think there used to be 25 spots in this and it got reduced to 20, so I feel like any time a couple of us can make the cut and represent the PGA well, I think that bodes well for the organization as a whole and just kind of shows the type of players that are at the top level of the PGA of America.”
But the big story of Friday was the familiar charge of Mickelson, whose 23-foot birdie putt dropped into the center of the cup capping a 3-under 69 that gave him the lead after the second round. Mickelson’s putt accentuated a 31 on his second nine that put him at 5-under for the tournament and energized a crowd that was growing with each birdie.
“It’s really fun, obviously, to make a putt on the last hole, finish a round like that and then to have that type of support here has been pretty special,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson had worked through “scar tissue” – something Padraig Harrington, one of his playing partners the opening two days, said 50-somethings must overcome – and of course, the unpredictable challenges of this “diabolical” (DeChambeau’s description) course to put himself in position to accomplish something he had not done in eight years – win a major.
“To be in contention, to have a good opportunity, I’m having a blast,” Mickelson said. “I’m excited for the weekend.”
Two weeks before the event at Kiawah, Mickelson was leading at Quail Hollow in Charlotte after an opening-round 64, but he followed with a 75 and two 76s and subsequently went from leading the tournament to finishing 69th.
He insisted an approach that included long spells of longer meditation and extra practice could make the difference.
“I’m working on it,” he said. “I’m making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus. I might try to play 36, 45 holes in a day and try to focus on each shot so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn’t feel like it’s that much. I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating.
“But I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.”
Mickelson wasn’t alone at the top as Louis Oosthuizen’s 68 pushed him into a tie for the lead through two rounds. Koepka posted a 71 and sat just a single shot behind the duo.
On Saturday, after shooting a 68 of his own, Jordan Spieth summed up the post-round sentiment of many of his colleagues. Spieth sounded as if he was channeling “the most interesting man in the world,” from old Dos Equis commercials when he said, “I don’t watch golf, but I promise you I’m going to turn it on to watch (Mickelson).”
“Yeah, it’s Phil, right,” he added. “It’s theatre.”
Dressed in all black like another ageless wonder, Gary Player, and sporting his now-familiar Highway Patrolman shades, the southpaw put on a world-class performance in the third round, threatening to run away with the title before a few stumbles.
He closed with five pars to shoot 2-under 70 and ended the day with a one-stroke lead over Koepka. After sharing the 36-hole lead, the 50-year-old Mickelson charged ahead with four birdies in his first seven holes.
In much more docile conditions, Mickelson sent the crowds into a delirious frenzy. Throaty cheers of “Let’s go Phil,” filled the air making it sound if not like 1999 then at least a pre-COVID world with Mickelson dispensing thumbs up to his fans as if giving out candy on Halloween.
By the time he canned a 7-foot birdie putt at 10 to reach double-digits under par, his lead had swelled to five strokes and Phil’s faithful were ready to crown him champion.
“I felt I had a very clear picture on every shot,” Mickelson said of his torrid start.
But as Spieth pointed out, Mickelson always provides theater and his five-stroke lead faded away as Mickelson hit into a fairway bunker at 12, took his medicine and made bogey, then snap-hooked his tee shot into the drink at 13, had to re-tee and made double bogey. Meanwhile, Oosthuizen made birdies at Nos. 11 and 12, and salvaged a bogey after driving into the water at 13, too. He shot 72 to trail by two and could’ve been even closer if he had made a few putts, including missing a gimme for birdie at 7 and taking three putts from 21 feet at No. 17.
“I think we all got lucky that he came back to the field,” Oosthuizen said of Mickelson.
With his 70, Mickelson became just the fifth player aged 50 or older to hold at least a share of the lead after three rounds in a major since 1900, joining Tom Watson (2009 Open), Greg Norman (2008 Open), Boros (1973 U.S. Open) and Harry Vardon (1920 U.S. Open).
And as is his wont, Mickelson made Sunday something special.
After sleeping on a one-shot lead, Mickelson, 200-1 to win on Thursday, survived a helter-skelter first 10 holes where he and playing partner Koepka exchanged body blows to the tune of four two-shot swings and one three-shot swing. And then he didn’t stagger despite a few more edge-of-your-seat moments on the back nine.
Mickelson got off to a shaky start with three bogeys in his first six holes, but birdies on 2, 5, 7 and 10 gave him separation from the field and when he took to the 13th tee, he had a 5-shot lead.
He made two consecutive bogeys before righting his ship with a birdie on the 16th and his nearest competitors didn’t get closer than two shots down the stretch.
Thousands of those fans followed him up the fairway and encircled the 18th green when containment was lost by marshals and thundered when Mickelson capped off his triumph by tapping in from six inches.
“Slightly unnerving but exceptionally awesome,” Mickelson said.
Thus, after winning his first PGA Tour title 30 years ago when he stunned the golf world to capture the Northern Telecom Open as a junior at Arizona State University, Mickelson won his 45th. And the man whose plaque has been hanging in the World Golf Hall of Fame for nine years and who has three victories on the PGA Tour Champions didn’t have any problem lifting the 27-pound Wanamaker Trophy for the second time; 16 years ago he won the 2005 PGA Championship.
“This is just an incredible feeling because I just believed that it was possible but yet everything was saying it wasn’t,” Mickelson said. “I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work, a little bit harder effort to maintain physically or maintain the skills, but gosh, is it worth it in the end.”
“My desire to play is the same. I’ve never been driven by exterior things. I’ve always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete, I love playing the game. I love having opportunities to play against the best at the highest level,” said Mickelson.
“That’s what drives me. I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. It just took a little bit more effort.”
Golfweek’s Steve DiMeglio and Adam Schupak also contributed to this report.
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