CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – As Kevin Kisner walked past on his way to sign his card certifying his lead midway through this PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club, Phil Mickelson stood in the middle of a scrum of reporters early Friday afternoon with sweat beading on his face.
After rounds of 79-74, Mickelson had nowhere to go but home. For the second straight major championship and for the first time in the PGA Championship since 1995, Mickelson missed the cut. As he said at Royal Birkdale last month, Mickelson missed the weekend with flair – again.
He looked lost, like a man in search of something and not knowing where to start. Just consider his words Friday.
“It’s not like I’m hitting the ball crooked, I’m just hitting it in the wrong spots,” Mickelson said.
There is a temptation to say that Mickelson has finally hit the point in his career when what he’s chasing is outrunning him. He’s 47 years old, hasn’t won a tournament since his epic victory at Muirfield in the 2013 Open Championship and maybe his magnificent duel with Henrik Stenson last year at Royal Troon was the last great hurrah in a career full of ovations.
If that’s the case, it’s been a helluva run. Mickelson has been a player for the ages, the rare man whose brilliance on the course has been equaled by his popularity off.
Until last month’s Open Championship, however, Mickelson had not missed a cut this year. He hadn’t been in the chase on Sundays but he always played the weekends – until recently. His experience, aggressiveness and short game have generally made up for the inconsistency in his long game.
At the point in his career when major championships are what drive him, Mickelson’s year has been a bust. He finished T22 at the Masters, bypassed the U.S. Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation and shot 73-77 and 79-74 in the final two majors.
The issues are familiar. Mickelson ranks 185th in fairways hit in regulation and he’s 202nd in avoiding the left rough off the tee. He’s 167th in greens in regulation. Escape artists rely on illusion for their stunts. Golf doesn’t allow for illusion.
In a game played as much between the ears as between the rough lines, Mickelson finds himself adrift. He insists his swing is solid enough, pushing back on suggestions that he’s searching for something. It’s his mind that’s interfering, he says.
“(I’m) not really controlling my thought process, where I want the ball to go. I’m not real focused out there,” Mickelson said. “I’m having a tough time visualizing the shot. I’m having a tough time controlling my thoughts and not letting it wander to what I don’t want to have happen.”
Since 1995, Mickelson has been a fixture on every U.S. team in the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup – 22 consecutive teams. He ranks 17th on the U.S. Presidents Cup list at the moment and will likely fall when the PGA Championship is factored in.
He has no promises that he will be on a 23rd consecutive team.
“I would love to be on it but I’ve got to play better these last couple of tournaments. The British and here have been atrocious. I’ll play the first two FedEx Cup events. If I can play well in those I will have a chance to get on the team on my own. If I play well and don’t make it I have a chance to be a pick. But I’ve got to play well in them,” Mickelson said.
At the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, last week, U.S. captain Steve Stricker and Mickelson talked about where things stand.
“(Mickelson) told me he wants to be on this team more than anything,” Stricker said. “I would love to see him on the team. But just like anybody else, I have got to see who is playing well at the time.
“I know he’s struggling a little bit right now. I told him I would like to see him play well (from) here on out to show me something basically, and that doesn’t sound right coming from a guy like me talking to Phil. Hey, show me something. That doesn’t sound right. That’s basically what I said. Show me that you are playing good at the end of the year. Because I would love to have him on the team.”
Asked how he fixes what’s missing in his game, Mickelson paused.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ll have to figure that out.”