Quick! Someone get Stephen Spielberg on the line! Or if he’s not available James Cameron! It’s a blockbuster, I tell ya! Marvel Studios will need ten Avengers franchises to match it.
Bill it as a sequel to Follow the Sun, that Ben Hogan movie. We can call it Over the Moon or The Legend of Baggy Pants or just The Greatest Golf Game Ever Played, but Phil Mickelson winning the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course just seven days shy of age 51 and becoming golf’s oldest major champion is as historic and inspiring a moment as golf has ever seen; Hollywood could write no better script.
And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Is there a more beloved figure in golf right now than Phil Mickelson? Tiger may still attract the most casual eyeballs, (and the most hagiographic hero worship), and Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau may be the PGA Tour’s “It Boys” right now, but Phil is the straw that stirs the drink of the most ardent golf fans.
“Phil’s loved wherever he plays,” noted Dottie Pepper back in 2016, marveling how even the European Ryder Cup fans still cheered Phil’s marvelous escapades, just has we have for over three decades, starting when he first burst on scene at the PGA Tour as a 20-year-old amateur and winning the Northern Trust Open.
Over the years, there was the joy of his first major at the 2004 Masters, where Lefty showed off that three-inch vertical leap that’s now immortalized as a logo on Phil’s merch. There was the Monday finish at Baltusrol in 2005 and his first Wanamaker Trophy 16 years ago, and there was that magical 66 to close at Muirfield and bring the Claret Jug and 2013 Open Championship back to Scottsdale.
But this was Phil’s magnum opus. Now a six-time major champion and tied for 12th on the all-time list with Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson, a Champions Tour player, essentially went mano-a-mano with the PGA Tour’s alpha predator and took him down.
Bristling with braggadocio, big, bad, bludgeoning, blustering Brooks Koepka is himself a four-time major champion, once holding back-to-back titles of the U.S. Open and PGA Championship at the same time. Starting only one shot back of Phil at the start of the final round, some commentators were opining that Phil couldn’t hang on for 18 holes against Brooks’s bombs, (can YOU hit a 385 yard drive?)
“Brooks is one shot back, they’ll never catch him,” one announcer concluded.
Old men like Phil belong on the senior Tour, they said. They can’t hang with the kids, they said. Phil will fade, they said.
But any student of Open Championship lore knows that old guys are crafty in the wind, especially cross-winds, like they have at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. Darren Clarke, thought to be a 43-year old ceremonial golfer took home the Claret Jug at blustery, quirky Royal St, George’s in 2011. In 2008, ghastly weather blasted Royal Birkdale all week and blew 54-year old Greg Norman into the lead after three rounds, only to see him bow late to Padraig Harrington. And of course, no one will ever forget gallant Tom Watson at 59 years old coming to the 72nd green at Turnberry, needing only to putts to become golf’s oldest major champion.
It was like watching Santa Claus get mugged on Christmas.
It was that memory and one more that were in Your Author’s mind when Phil strode to the tee box of the 72nd hole. The overarching sense of loss when Watson’s miracle win was dashed from our lips, along with what would have been his sixth Claret Jug was bad enough. But there was also one other nagging horror, one black memory that no Phil fan will ever forget:
Please – by all that is holy and righteous – please don’t hit it off the merch tent…
Yes, Winged Foot. Please oh please, Dear Golf Gods, save us from Winged Foot and all the other Ghosts of U.S. Opens Past, six cruel runner-up finishes in all, but not a single U.S. Open trophy.
But no, Phil finished like a boss. His tee shot landed safely in the middle of the fairway, and then Philip Alfred Mickelson became golf’s rejoinder to the Pied Piper of Hamelin and led the entire gallery down the fairway and into golf immortality.
Phil may never have a finer moment, unless he wins the Open Championship at St. George’s in two month’s time. Think he can’t do it? It could very well be a carbon copy of his masterstroke at the Ocean Course. Fickle crosswinds, zany bounces, blind shots, and weather – everything the rank and file Tour pro hates. Outlasting the longer hitters when they make mistakes is critical at such moments, but that’s exactly how Phil held off Koepka. Koepka played the par-fives five shots worse than Phil did in the final round. That’s substantially more than the margin of victory.
“Focus focus focus,” was what Mickelson credited in bagging his second Wanamaker trophy, a record 16 years after his first and 17 years after his first major championship. That and the calming effect of having brother Tim Mickelson on the bag as his caddie. But Phil was buoyed by the fans, almost uniformly behind him every step of the way. The golfers may have played in a cross-wind, but the fans filled Phil’s sails with fair winds all day.
And Phil responded with magic. At the par-3 fifth, Phil gave us not just a highlight reel, but a time capsule shot, holing out for birdie from a a greenside bunker. There was never a doubt: with the touch of a Hollywood hairdresser, Phil’s Taylor Made tracked from the moment it landed on the green, and the sand dunes along the Atlantic rang with the cheering.
From then it was one cinematic scene after another with Phil writing his own screenplay. Under dappled sunshine and along a shimmering sea, he stood on this edge of the world and embraced it for his own. Goodyear blimp tee shots, laser beam tee shots, and lasik-precise putting. His closing 73 looks pedestrian on the scorecard, but was Herculean in effort.
Phil did what Jack Nicklaus did at the ’86 Masters. He hung the moon, the stars, and the sun in the sky. He is now the oldest major champion in golf history by two-and-a-half years, breaking Julius Boros’s old record from the 1968 PGA at Pecan Valley.
Quintessential sports writer Dan Jenkins once wrote that the chances of a pro golfer winning a major at age 45 or older are slim and none. Apparently Slim plays left-handed.
So we’ve got it all figured out: Matt Damon can play Phil, Ben Affleck for his brother Tom the caddie. Christian Bale for Brooks Koepka and Rick Moranis for Louis Oosthuizen. What? Moranis is too old? Okay, how about Rob Schneider or Pete Davison? You need somebody screwy to play Louis, you don’t know what he’s going to do from shot to shot. When Louis shoots a 69, it could be a 39-30 line score. He sometimes goes even par for any nine given holes, yet never cards a single par. Say what you want about seven runner-up finishes in majors after winning the 2010 Open Championship, you can’t deny he’s fun to watch.
So shoot it, cut it, print it! The good guy who looked washed up returns to not just glory, but immortality. And then rides off into a blazing sunset as the soundtrack fades to the rolling waves of the boundless ocean and the soft chirping of the birds, and the wind whistling through the fescue. Somewhere in Heaven, Pete Dye is smiling. And so is every other golf fan. I’d pay green money to see that…wouldn’t you?