Even in a sport crowded with egomaniacal alphas, Phil Mickelson stands out as an influential force who, aside from engagements with Tiger Woods, always sets the terms. But the last time he found himself in contention at the PGA Championship, he acceded.
Rory McIlroy, then in 2014 the man of the moment in golf’s majors, overwhelmed the veteran five-time major winner. Rory did not just do it with his play, but he set the terms for how things were going to be as the sun went down in Louisville, damn near playing through Mickelson amid some meekly voiced objections from Phil.
Brooks Koepka is now the man of the moment in golf’s major championships, even when he’s not at 100 percent. He shows up the most often, contends the most often, and converts most often. He showed up on Sunday at the Ocean Course and marched directly into the first open spot on the range without even acknowledging Phil’s presence. Phil, by contrast, told each player he passed to “have a good one out there today.”
Koepka fashions himself as the biggest hardass on tour, and has often backed it up at the most important events. On Sunday, he gave Phil a cursory fist-bump on the 1st tee, but that was about it before he went out to capture his fifth major, which would have already matched the career total of his far more elderly playing partner.
Koepka warmed up on the range, hitting a variety of shots into the wind. It was a simple session that ran counter to Phil, three spots away with alignment sticks, an iPad, a launch monitor, and a swing coach. A club cracked, causing his brother to sprint off to the locker room for a replacement, and he worked through mechanics with his coach up until the last moment he had to catch a shuttle out to the 1st tee. It was unnerving, and an opening hole that moved Koepka from one back to one up felt about right. He was going to strut all over Mickelson for the next five hours.
Mickelson, however, became the ringmaster of a circus that enveloped an agitated Koepka by the end of the round. The 50-year-old owned the crowd and controlled the pace of the round. It was a pace that often appeared to bother Koepka, known as a fast player. Mickelson’s group had fallen almost a hole behind at this PGA the last three rounds, and he seemed to be moving at an exceedingly deliberate pace all week. It was noticeable both in gait and pre-shot routine and became a topic of conversation here on the weekend. Several times on Saturday, his playing partner, Louis Oosthuizen, looked at him as if concerned he might be frozen. Mickelson spoke of “elongating” his focus during a stretch where he’s said the stamina of that mental focus has become his biggest obstacle.
At the 11th hole, after his caddie walked off distances on the tee box as a waiting Koepka looked on, Mickelson hit his tee shot left into the dunes, where a fan picked it up. In one of the rare exchanges between the two, he told Koepka he was calling for an official and to go ahead and play out of turn if he wanted to. Koepka declined with a shrug but after a minute or so of watching the swarm in the dunes, he decided to go ahead and play first. Only Brooks couldn’t get Phil’s attention after shouting back to him a few times to try and get the all clear. So Koepka had to lean on his club, exasperated, waiting for the ruling and conclusion of Phil’s stand-up routine with the audience up in the dunes.
At the 13th, it was Koepka’s turn to go up into the left dunes. He had to play first. It took some time to move the crowd around and pull a club, and even after that and his hitting first, Phil still put him on ice, deliberating out in the fairway before pulling a club and making a swing. Koepka leaned on his bag and shook his head.
At the 16th, a driver hole, Phil took a full minute after Brooks went first. At the 17th, he took one minute and 43 seconds to hit second off the tee. Play always slows down at the critical moments of a major, but this was Phil’s deliberate strategy all week, and setting these terms with this playing partner seemed to have an impact. On the final tee, he deliberated again, marking his territory with a loop around the tee box that forced Brooks and his caddie to step off into the scrub. It was one final, literal brush back, whether he knew (likely) he was doing it or not.
“It’s almost like Brooks is fighting Phil’s fight,” said CBS’s Frank Nobilo on the front nine. He was referring to the typically steady and deadpan Koepka hopping on a Phil-style roller coaster of a scorecard as the two scrambled around the marshes, gaining and giving back shots. Using the Nobilo analogy, that’s not Koepka’s kind of boxing, but Phil imposed his preferred style and pace on this round.
Then there was the crowd, the first full-throated gallery at a major championship since July of 2019. The fans running through the dunes and finding different vantage points gave this championship an energy that was sorely missing this past year. It also had an impact on the final pairing.
Koepka is not some journeyman—he’s the best major championship golfer going and a popular character. But these galleries don’t have a three-decade allegiance to him, and they treated him like an accompanying act to the history they wanted to see. When Phil hit first, they hummed and shouted, indifferent to the considerations of Koepka playing his shot. When Phil putted out first, they ran away from the rope line as if Brooks were some club pro or playing marker.
They shouted, a lot, and not just for Phil. “You’re in the big leagues now, Brooks!” rained down at the 13th, neglecting the fact that Koepka has definitely been the best player in those big-league moments for the last five years. “Phil’s your daddy!” boomed out at the 16th green. Again, the target was Brooks Koepka, four-time major champion. But for golf fans, there’s been a dearth of chances to shout idiocies this past miserable year, and this was Phil and it was history.
In 2019, when Koepka won his second PGA Championship, he said the New York crowd briefly turning against him during a bogey stretch and chanting up ahead for Dustin Johnson “actually helped” and re-focused him. The 2021 championship was a different animal, though, and the preferential choice was right there beside him in crowds that moved through the dunes with an obligation to help carry Mickelson across the finish line to history.
Mickelson tried to control all the outside variables, but controlling just those and not your golf ball don’t win you a PGA Championship at a course like this. There were the usual adventures off the tee, but the recoveries and approaches into the wind were illustrative of a veteran who didn’t just know how to play to the crowd. Playing in a wind that Jordan Spieth astutely pointed out would be beneficial to a lefty, Mickelson mixed in trajectories and shot shapes and found the right portions of the green. He leans on science and data all the time, but it’s the creativity that’s won him these crowds. His approach shot into the 10th displayed that, as he drew a low 7-iron out over a bunker and dropped it right on top of the pin to send the gallery into hysterics.
It’s never over with Phil, who can get in his own way even when it feels like there’s no room left to do so. But in the moment and at that green, the shot into 10 and the converted birdie putt felt like a clear line of demarcation that this was his. After the round, he cited that shot first when asked to rate his best shot of the day. There’s so much history with Mickelson, who has become something of a caricature late in his career, and not for exclusively positive reasons. But the love and popularity originated with those creative golf shots.
Much like his last time contending at the PGA but for far different reasons, the scene coming up the 18th was surreal. This time he didn’t acquiesce to the younger gun in a race against darkness, but strutted up to history, racing fans who had overrun the fairway. The marshals could not contain the crowd, but Phil held it and his opponent in the palm of his hand.