Golf is the sport where failure always feels the most within reach. It’s a game where even the greats struggle to consistently succeed—world Nos. 1 and 2 Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas didn’t even make the cut at the PGA Championship this weekend. For a fan, watching the tensest moments can feel more like praying for guys not to screw it up than urging on moments of pure brilliance. To digress before this blog even gets going—this is because golf starts you with a perfect score, and every action you take makes it worse and worse. No shot can be objectively advantageous; it can only be less worse than everyone else’s.
No golfer in this generation, or the last for that matter, better embodies the sport’s preference for failure over triumph than Phil Mickelson. He’s an all-timer for sure, long before what happened on Sunday, but his meltdowns are almost as legendary as his victories (which were made all the sweeter by his reputation for collapse). His nine runner-up finishes at majors ranks third all-time behind Nicklaus and Palmer, none more heartbreaking than 2006 at the U.S. Open.
All of this is why, heading into Sunday at this year’s PGA Championship, the 50-year-old Mickelson’s improbable one-shot lead over Brooks Koepka promised to be as much a curse as a blessing. Frankly, it felt like he would have been better served if he was one shot back, only because I cannot imagine the pressure that builds from about 19 hours of “Can he really do it? Can he really be the oldest to ever win a Major?” expectations.
But on the windy beaches of Kiawah Island on Sunday, all of Mickelson’s younger challengers wilted while Lefty stubbornly defied the odds. Koepka, 31, shot a +2. Louis Oosthuizen, the 38-year-old who started the day two shots back in third place, also couldn’t manage par. Kevin Streelman, 42, was three shots back and in fourth place but shot +3 on the final 18. Mickelson, meanwhile, played what was officially his worst round of the tournament, but he avoided all potential pitfalls and extended his overall lead on the field with a 73, for a four-day total of -6. Heading to 18, with a bogey and a Koepka birdie the only possibility that would keep him from lifting the trophy, Mickelson deftly recovered from a somewhat wild tee shot with a perfect approach while surrounded by an adoring crowd, then he calmly executed the two-putt par to write his name in the record book.
“He never doubted himself,” Tim Mickelson, Phil’s brother caddie, said afterward. “His will and desire to win is as high as it’s ever been, in my opinion. He just loves golf. He loves golf. I mean, when he’s at home, he’s still playing almost every single day, sometimes 36. He’s grinding. It never stops for him.”
If it were anyone other than Mickelson, it might have felt like destiny to all the viewers as early as the fifth hole. That was where Phil’s first shot on the Par 3 plopped him smack dab in the middle of the sand, and also where he needed just one (one!) spectacular chip shot and zero putts to still earn birdie.
All throughout the rest of his round Mickelson teased a crushing breakdown and then expertly maneuvered to maintain his hold on first place. With a five-shot lead on 13, he bogeyed thanks to a shot into the water and then saw his lead shrink to three after the very next hole because of a weak tee shot and a painful two-putt.
But his adversaries could not capitalize on these mistakes with red numbers of their own, and Mickelson also pulled it together to cross the finish line with his advantage fully intact. He parred 15 and then delivered a clutch 16, stringing together an excellent long tee shot right down the middle with an aggressive approach, a perfect chip, and a gimme putt to extend his lead back to three with a Par 5 birdie.
Then on 17, he survived another dicey first shot that saw his ball bounce into some long stuff and an awkward first putt to escape with just bogey. And then on 18 … well, you saw the ecstasy that happened there.
Epic collapses make for good stories, maybe even more than glorious triumph. (Everybody can name more Shakespeare tragedies than they can comedies.) But for this particular golfer, at this particular tournament, that wouldn’t have held true. Not a soul would have been entertained by a brutal and familiar Mickelson collapse on Sunday, and nobody would have wanted to read that story today. (You’d all just grimace and scroll to see where we were laughing about the Knicks.) This was almost certainly Mickelson’s last best chance at a major; there would be no opportunity for future redemption if he came up short. This was the comeback, in its entirety, and the storybook ending to a fan favorite’s career. And if it hadn’t happened this weekend, it wouldn’t have happened. So thank goodness Phil made sure it did.