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KIAWAH ISLAND, SC – Phil Mickelson, who will turn 51 next month, won the PGA Championship on Sunday, making him the oldest golfer to win a major championship. The record was previously held by Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the PGA Championship in 1968.
Mickelson shot six under par for the tournament and finished two strokes ahead of runner-up Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.
Mickelson becomes the youngest in a growing group of sports stars who have defied the traditional retirement age for athletes and proven that championships can be won in careers well into middle age. Mickelson has followed Tom Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl three months ago at 43. At 39, Serena Williams was always on the lookout for elite titles. Despite being seriously injured in a car accident in February, Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters tournament two years ago at the age of 43.
Mickelson’s achievement, his sixth major title, could prove to be a bookend for three decades in the golf spotlight. A four-time college All-American, he won his first professional tournament when he was an amateur and failed to cash the high check for his performance. After turning pro, he took victories on the PGA Tour, but soon became better known for failing to win his first major championship.
Mickelson was also unfortunate enough to play most of his career in the shadow of superstar Woods, who won six major championships before he was 26. Yet Mickelson didn’t break through until he was 33 when he won the 2004 Masters during his 13th year on tour. Two more Masters championships followed in 2006 and 2010, as well as a win at the 2005 PGA Championship, but there were also frequent, daunting setbacks, including six runner-ups at the United States Open, the national championship of American golf. Before winning Sunday’s treacherous Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, Mickelson hadn’t won a major since the 2013 British Open.
Mickelson has remained immensely popular, however, for his daring style of play and his Everyman body, which is in stark contrast to the healthy, muscular bodies of the modern golfer who best characterize Woods. Known as Lefty for brandishing a left-handed golf ball – despite being right-handed by nature – Mickelson spent decades comfortably browsing golf galleries, often with a smile and a thumbs up, a gesture he made from Arnold Palmer learned.
Mickelson’s rush for the leaderboard at this PGA Championship was not hinted at by his recent performance at other events. Since missing the cut at the US Open last year, his best result on the PGA Tour was a draw for 21st place. He finished outside the top 50 nine times.
Mickelson played in dark sunglasses and with an air of calm and started the round on Sunday with a stroke ahead of Koepka, who ended the event in a tie for second place with Oosthuizen at four under par.
But long before Mickelson’s triumphant outcome was certain, he was embroiled in a tense, upside-down battle, first with Koepka and then with Oosthuizen in the final holes.
While Mickelson seemed to have a comfortable four-shot lead over the field with six holes, his second shot on the 13th hole was connected to a water hazard, which resulted in an annoying bogey. On the 14th par 3 hole Mickelson came up just before the green. He was eight feet tall but missed the par putt for another bogey.
Almost simultaneously, Oosthuizen made two stabilizing pars on the 14th and 15th holes to draw in three strokes from Mickelson, who was six under par for the tournament. Mickelson made par on the 15th hole, but Oosthuizen screwed the 16th par 5 hole – his eagle putt just missed – to reduce Mickelson’s lead to two strokes.
But Mickelson responded with a par on the 15th hole and then hit a massive 337 yard drive to the middle of the 16th fairway. His second shot hit the green, but jumped off his back. A dice chip nestled next to the hole for an easy birdie, and Mickelson headed three strokes to the hardest hole on the longest golf course in the history of the great championship.
Mickelson’s 6-iron from the 17th tee made a large jump to the left of the hole and rolled behind the green sixty feet off the flagstick into knee-high grass. After a few minutes of deliberation, Mickelson clamped his ball securely on the putting surface, where he made two puttings for a bogey who still held him two strokes on top.
On the final hole, Mickelson shot his tee shot into the gallery to the left of the fairway, but he threw a 9-iron off the rough 16 feet from the hole when the crowd roared their approval. Mickelson walked over to the green and shook his left fist over his shoulder. He was enveloped by hundreds of fans who ran past security guards and the police to celebrate with Mickelson.
Mickelson hugged, pushed, and patted the back, and it took a few minutes to run the last 50 yards to the 18th green. When the audience sang his first name, he finally appeared in a green surrounded by the crowd.
Mickelson later called the experience “a little annoying” and “great”.
Two putts, the last a tap-in, followed to secure the championship, and Mickelson gave his brother and caddy Tim a long hug.
Hours earlier, in the middle of a sunny, humid day along the South Carolina coast, Mickelson had made good use of his chances when Koepka took the lead from him at the opening hole. In a matter of minutes, a Mickelson’s three-putt bogey and a Koepka birdie had reversed names on the leaderboard. But Koepka gave up that advantage when he botched an approach shot and pitch on the second par 5 hole, resulting in a double bogey.
The two, in the last group on the track, parried for the lead over the top nine, although Mickelson advanced two strokes as the duo took the corner. Koepka then fell further back with successive bogies on the 10th and 11th holes.