KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — In a world in which people over 50 might feel enhanced spryness this week if they studied Phil Mickelson over the weekend, on goes Mickelson. He can play from here as a guy who’ll be 51 in June and just found himself one last mountaintop vista, a story with its happiness, or he can play on with the mien that governed his triumph at the PGA Championship: that of viable, why-not contender, a story also with its happiness.
Somehow, he approaches this road fork as the 121st U.S. Open shines from just up the calendar and from just up the road. It’s coming June 17 to 20, and they’re setting it up at Torrey Pines near San Diego, the city of Mickelson’s birth, childhood and residence. Without going overboard, the possibilities did just widen just a tad, as if Torrey Pines ever needs more story lines.
“So it’s very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win,” he said late Sunday, and if that sounded jarring, it also came laced with truth in a sport forever baffling.
“Like, if I’m being realistic,” he said next.
“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.” Then, to anyone who will listen, with everybody listening now: “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.”
Look, the interview rooms of golf tournaments teem with golfers telling you their best form lurks right around the corner, that their scores are just not matching their prowess at the moment. It’s practically a song always playing in the distance and occasionally dredging cringes. It’s also a necessity of a mind-set to carry around against the awful beast of a game these people have chosen to play.
Tim Mickelson — the former agent, the former Arizona State coach, Phil’s younger brother and Phil’s caddie — rewound to several weeks ago to play it again on a merry Sunday evening. “He’s actually been playing well over the last four or five months; just nothing really clicked at the same time,” Tim Mickelson said at one point. At another he said: “We were turning 68s into 72s. To win out here, you need to be able to turn a 72 into a 68 or 69.”
Nobody groaned even if everybody had heard versions of the song maybe triple-digit times. Well, the song rings true for somebody, and this time it rang true for a guy whose hopes would have seemed irrational to the layman.
“One day his putting would be bad,” Tim Mickelson said. “The next day would be his chipping, but everything else was there. We had obviously one really great round at Charlotte and then faltered” — an opening 64 and an ensuing 75 at Quail Hollow this month — “but it’s been there. You guys probably wouldn’t be able to see it because we haven’t been able to put it together for more than one round, but we all knew it was there.
“And he actually had told me three weeks ago, I think it was right after Charlotte, he said, ‘I am going to win again soon.’ I just said, ‘Well, let’s just make sure we’re in contention on a Sunday.’ I was trying to downplay the situation, but he said he was going to win again soon, and sure enough, obviously it worked.”
As it worked, Phil Mickelson, a former holder of the “best player never to win a major” honor, could look at this implausible sixth major title, eight years after the fifth and 17 years after the first, which didn’t come until age almost-34.
“Worked harder, is the deal,” he said. “I just had to work harder physically to be able to practice as long as I wanted to, and I’ve had to work a lot harder to be able to maintain focus through a round. That’s been the biggest challenge of late. 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. That’s what drives me, and I think . . . the belief that I could still do it inspired me to work harder. I just didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. It just took a little bit more effort.”
Those who had bothered to look through all the players and all the stories would have heard Mickelson had altered his diet, but few of them could have forecast he would tack on a fresh pinnacle and become that rare major champion talking inflammation.
“Yeah, I’ve got to eat a lot less and I’ve got to eat better,” he said. “I just can’t eat as much and I have to let my body kind of recover. But it’s also been a blessing for me because I feel better and I don’t have inflammation and I wake up feeling good. It’s been a sacrifice worth making.”
All along, the story goes, the physical part stayed sturdy enough but the concentration kept wavering from the present, even as the desire stayed tiptop.
“He just loves golf,” Tim Mickelson said. “I mean, when he’s at home, he’s still playing almost every single day, sometimes 36 [holes]. He’s grinding. It never stops for him. I go home and all I do is sit on the couch and hang out with my little baby.”
Soon thereafter, one of only 14 men with six or more major titles said: “I’ve believed for some time now without success that I could play at my best and compete in major championships still, but until this week, I haven’t proven it to myself or anyone else. But I do believe that if I stay sharp mentally I can play well at Torrey Pines.”
After all, golf’s imagination had just expanded.
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