KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — It’s not quite the same storyline that enveloped another major championship. The backdrop there was whether a beeper in his golf bag would go off at any moment, summoning him home.
But Phil Mickelson requesting that a drone be removed from his line of flight when sizing up his second shot to the fourth hole at the Ocean Course on Saturday in the third round of the PGA Championship put in perspective the longevity of his career.
Mickelson won a PGA Tour event as an amateur 30 years ago, one sponsored by a telecommunications company whose main business at the time was not cellphones. They were barely a thing then.
He contended at the 1999 U.S. Open when his wife, Amy, was due any minute, hence the beeper. (Their daughter, Amanda, is now out of college).
Now, Mickelson is trying to become the oldest major champion — ever.
And it was a drone that got his attention.
Faced with a 188-yard shot, Mickelson was distracted by the buzzing drone being used for the television broadcast. He backed off, summoned a technician in the fairway and asked that the guy radio in help to have it moved.
While Mickelson ended up parring the hole, it was part of a wild scene that saw Kiawah Island tilt on its side as Mickelson birdied five of his first 10 holes to take a five-shot lead at the PGA Championship; he had a 7-footer at the 11th to extend it to six.
And that’s where reality jumped up, reminded Mickelson that he is 50 and turned the second major championship of 2021 into a riveting spectacle, with major stalker Brooks Koepka ready to do bicep curls with another Wanamaker Trophy.
Mickelson missed the putt and then made his first bogey in 21 holes after finding a waste area off the tee at the 12th. The lead was still four. Then, after watching Louis Oosthuizen rinse his tee shot at the 13th, Mickelson inexplicably hit a worse shot to drown his ball in the same hazard, leading to a double bogey.
“Even though it slipped a little bit today and I didn’t stay as focused and as sharp on a few swings, it’s significantly better than it’s been for a long time,” said Mickelson, whose 2-under-par 70 was good for a one-shot lead over Koepka and a two-stroke advantage over Oosthuizen. “So, I’m making a lot of progress, and I’ll continue to work on that and, hopefully, I’ll be able to eliminate a couple of those loose swings [on Sunday].
“Because I’m playing a lot better than the score is showing and I think if I can just stay sharp, I’ll post a score that better reflects how I’m actually playing.”
Two swings led to three lost shots and turned what was looking like a sizable lead into a nervous night of wondering for Mickelson, who has not contended in a major championship since the 2016 Open and has not won one in eight years, since he rallied for an epic 66 in the final round at Muirfield in 2013.
That was seen as the crowning moment on top of a Hall of Fame career, a fitting victory at the game’s oldest championship, where Lefty had never fared very well.
This? It would be, simply, historic. Nobody has won a major championship in their 50s. The oldest major champion was Julius Boros in 1968. He was 48 when he did it. Boros, who won three majors, had a guy named Arnold Palmer breathing down his neck that day in San Antonio.
Staring at Mickelson will be Koepka, who is amazingly in contention after playing just four official rounds since the end of February. March knee surgery had Koepka doing more rehab than golf work. But here he is again, with another major in sight, surely not worried about the guy who is 20 years older.
“It just feels good, feels normal,” Koepka said. “It’s what you’re supposed to do, what you practice for. I’m right where I want to be, and we’ll see how [Sunday] goes. Just to be within three of the lead going into the back nine and you’ve got a chance.”
Koepka is going for his fifth major. Mickelson is after his sixth. Not since 1981 have two players with at least four majors each been paired together in the final group on Sunday of a major. That would be Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at the Masters, where Watson prevailed.
For Mickelson to win his second PGA Championship, he will need to straighten out the 2-wood that got him into trouble twice on Saturday, at the 12th and 13th holes.
Three shots lost. That five-shot lead he had built through 10 holes was down to one.
“I just need to execute better,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been hitting that shot well; it’s a running draw. I didn’t hit it very well today, but I’ve been hitting it very well, and I’ll go work on that.”
And he did, heading to the range in the early-evening gloaming, practicing all manner of shots and then putting in some work on the putting green too.
Mickelson still leads the field in strokes gained tee to green, but he was 70th on Saturday in strokes gained off the tee. The statistic that has plagued him for several years came back to haunt him again.
Can he find the magic for one final round?
“It’s Phil, right? It’s theater,” Jordan Spieth said. “It’s pretty incredible. The guy’s got four good rounds on any golf course in him, and no one would bet against that. What he did in the wind (Thursday and Friday) with kind of the struggles — I think accuracy off the tee that’s been kind of his biggest struggle — to carve into these fairways and to be gaining strokes on the field and to shoot those scores consistently in the conditions we had, I mean, that’s pretty awesome.”
Stricker, the U.S. Ryder Cup team captain, noticed how well Mickelson was hitting the ball. They got an early lead in the match.
“Just to give you a glimpse of what Phil said, Phil and I were 3-up after 3 and he said it loud enough so everybody could hear, ‘You know, Strick, I thought we’d be more up at this point,’ and we were 3-up after 3,” Stricker said. “Typical Phil.
“He came in here very focused, it looked like. [He was] confident in what he was doing, and he drove it well with me and hit some great iron shots. So, it’s impressive when you’ve got a 50-year-old leading. But he’s a special player. He’s one of the greatest players in the game, in the history of the game, and he’s kept his health and his flexibility. He still hits it long enough to compete. It’s pretty cool to see him up there at the top.”
Cool, for sure.
Confidence? Never lacking with Phil.
None of that has wavered in the 30 years of change that has seen Mickelson go from baby-faced hotshot to elder statesman.
But nothing would be more celebrated or more momentous than a victory on Sunday.