This past weekend, out of nowhere, we were treated to one of the greatest major championships of the 21st century. Fifty-year-old Phil Mickelson, looking for his sixth major and trying to become the game’s oldest major champion, squared off against golf’s preeminent major championship player, Brooks Koepka, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The final round at Kiawah Island unfolded like a movie, yet the ending was completely unexpected. Mickelson came in with no form and the longest odds of his professional career. Even the biggest Phil fans can’t say they saw this coming.
But in retrospect, it’s not hard to understand why Mickelson won the 2021 PGA Championship. The Ocean Course’s tricky design and windy conditions were always going to reward the player who had the most shots in his arsenal. This past week, it was Phil. A golfer cut from a different cloth than the “athletes” of today’s PGA Tour, Phil peppered Pete Dye’s Ocean Course with shots of many different shapes and trajectories. He hit bullet draws into the wind and high fades downwind; he punched 7-irons from 150, employed the claw grip to pop the ball out of a hollow on a green, and holed a bunker shot. Through four rounds and three different winds, the Ocean Course asked the most diverse set of questions championship golf has seen in some time. At the final examination on Sunday, the player who answered the highest number of those questions correctly was Phil Mickelson.
Others were close. While runner-up Louis Oosthuizen had the right approach and short-game tools, he struggled to hit fairways on the weekend, especially on Sunday between the 6th and 13th holes. During the stretch, the wind was into him and off the left. Like many pros these days, right-handed Oosthuizen plays a high fade almost exclusively off the tee. This left-to-right ball flight, coupled with a wind that exaggerated it, made finding fairways on the Ocean Course’s middle stretch extraordinarily difficult. King Louis quickly found himself on the defensive. The Ocean Course’s fairways bend and twist around hazards in frightening ways, and once you miss a few of them, it’s already too late.
During the same stretch, Mickelson opted several times for a TaylorMade 2-wood that allowed him to move the ball both ways while keeping it low in the wind. Variety off the tee is a relative rarity in elite tournament golf today. Even Rory McIlroy, whose natural shape off the tee is a booming draw, has recently discussed his struggles turning the ball over with new driver heads. Now he’s in the midst of developing a go-to cut. But rather than abandon an entire shot shape, Phil found a club that allowed him to do whatever his skill permitted. Some would say it’s a fool’s errand to work the ball in different directions on different holes, but on Sunday and all week at Kiawah, we saw why having an arsenal of shapes and flights still matters.
And it doesn’t just matter on drives. Just as he bested Oosthuizen off the tee, Mickelson found an edge on Brooks Koepka into the greens. This is no mean feat. It was Koepka who conquered Shinnecock Hills with surgical ball-striking at the 2018 U.S. Open, the recent major that came closest to asking the depth of questions that the 2021 PGA did. But on the back nine at the Ocean Course, Brooks’s distance control with his irons let him down. He missed the 10th green short, the 12th long, and the 16th short. Meanwhile, Mickelson had precisely the punch draws and soft fades needed to get pin-high consistently.
Afterwards, Mickelson told Golf Channel’s “Live From” crew about his flighted 7-iron into the 10th green. “Now this was salty,” he said. “Because I had to start that over the bunker just left of the green because I couldn’t cut it back into the wind—because it would take too much off it. So I let that draw, and [the wind] took 18 yards off the draw, but it would have taken off about 30 if I had cut it.”
Phil Mickelson, DIALED IN. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/F4bPeDulD7
— GOLFonCBS (@GOLFonCBS) May 23, 2021
On the same hole, Koepka’s baby fade caught the wind, looking as if it hit an invisible wall as it fell woefully short in a bunker.
Perhaps if Brooks had grown up in Phil’s era, he would have had something like Mickelson’s punch draw at his disposal. But he didn’t—not on Sunday, at least. Koepka grew up in the era of large driver heads, solid-core balls, Trackman, and an increasingly popular theory that golfers should focus on mastering just one type of shot.
This revolution in equipment and instruction has enabled players to optimize their swings to a remarkable degree, but it has taken some creativity and artistry out of the game. Today, it’s rare to see high-level golfers alternating draws with cuts. They don’t usually have to. Which is why I almost toppled over when I saw 24-year-old Will Zalatoris lace a penetrating draw into a heavy wind on the 17th hole at the Ocean Course on Thursday. It was a different flight than I saw all day, and it led me to follow him a fair amount during the first two rounds. It was delightful to watch him shape irons left and right. He ended up in a tie for eighth, and perhaps with a bit more seasoning, he would have been a more serious threat to Mickelson.
But Zalatoris is an exception in the 2020s. The majority of PGA Tour pros rely on one shape. Just a generation ago, that would have been unthinkable. Remember the legend of Tiger Woods’s nine-shot practice drills, where he’d have to hit high draws, low fades, and straight balls in rapid succession? You just don’t hear about that kind of thing anymore. It’s more about hitting the same shot over and over—with glances at the Trackman to verify each flight’s uniformity.
So let’s celebrate the Ocean Course for restoring, for at least one week, the need for all the shots. Maybe it was just a coincidence that none of the top 15 from the PGA Tour’s all-important FedEx Cup standings finished in the top 16 of this PGA Championship. But probably not.
The game we saw at Kiawah was a clear departure from the game we see week in and week out on tour. The fairways and greens had bounce to them, not stick. Bombers who missed their targets found a penalty, not a reward. Hitting the green in regulation was an achievement, not a forgone conclusion. It was a brand of golf I remember watching when I fell in love with the game in the 1990s. It kept you on the edge of your seat because you knew disaster was constantly lurking, waiting for a simple poor strike. For the first time in a long time, thanks to wind and smart design, we saw the pros confront real fear.
Unfortunately, there are only a few courses that produce this kind of golf at the elite levels of the men’s game. The Ocean Course, Shinnecock Hills, Augusta National (when it’s firm), and the courses of the Open rota are the only ones that come readily to mind.
That list would be longer if we made the pros’ equipment a bit less user-friendly. Scaled-back clubs and balls would restore teeth to many designs that don’t have quite the defenses of the Ocean Course. And maybe, just maybe, players would once again be incentivized to hit the ball left to right, right to left, low, and high more than a couple of times a year.
But for now, at least we have the 2021 PGA Championship. In a way, the chaos created by the fans as they stormed the 18th hole on Sunday was an appropriate symbolic end to a championship that turned all of professional golf’s conventions upside down.