KIAWAH ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | Phil Mickelson has always been a master of imagination.
His imagination and ours.
Even behind his now ever-present sunglasses, Mickelson sees the world through a unique prism, his colors a little bolder and brighter. It’s one of his gifts and it can be as maddening as it is magical, separating him from what he must see as a black and white world.
Now halfway through this magnetic PGA Championship at the menacing Ocean Course, Mickelson is doing it again, stepping into the starring role of his wind-blown tournament, raising the pulse rate on possibilities.
It may be nothing more than a tease, like two weeks ago when Mickelson shot 64 in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship then failed to break 76 in his next three rounds. Or maybe this time is different.
As Mickelson made his way around his second nine holes Friday morning, dusting his scorecard with five birdies, it looked and felt like a calm place in the gusting conditions. He dialed down the stress, dialed up the opportunities and risked a sunburned thumb the way he was flashing his familiar gesture to the thousands of fans willing him along.
… (Mickelson) has an unnerving tendency to hit crazy wild tee shots from which he can’t recover, and his focus comes and goes like cell phone service in remote areas.
The truth is Mickelson has become almost irrelevant, at least in terms of being competitive on the PGA Tour. He has finished in the top 20 just once in his last 24 starts – a random T2 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational last summer – and he’s down to 115th in the world rankings.
At 51 years old, he’s an old man in a young man’s game.
And still …
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” 49-year-old Padraig Harrington said after playing the first two days with Mickelson. “In the position he is, I expect him to contend and I wouldn’t put it past him being there at the end of the week.”
It could be Phil’s late-career version of Nicklaus at the ’86 Masters or Tiger at the ’19 Masters.
Then again, a long and difficult weekend awaits with the promise of a 180-degree shift in wind direction that may feel like turning a table upside down.
“To know I’m playing well heading into the weekend, to be in contention, to have a good opportunity, I’m having a blast,” Mickelson said after rounds of 70-69.
Harrington, a three-time major champion, understands where Mickelson now finds himself as a player. The shots are still there, and the distance is still there but the years have stacked up, creating a gradual and natural erosion. It’s still subtle in Mickelson’s case but the game doesn’t come as easily as it once did.
“Unfortunately, as you gain experience, you lose innocence. There is a sweet spot on the way up when you’re gaining a bit of experience, and yet you lose that innocence as you get older,” Harrington said.
“Like myself and Phil, yeah, we have experience, but we have some scar tissue in there and we can overthink things at times.”
Like when Mickelson played the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines – the longest major championship course ever at the time – without a driver. Or his unrelenting obsession with distance, particularly off the tee, even when he’s ranked among the longest hitters in the game.
Two things have conspired against Mickelson: He has an unnerving tendency to hit crazy wild tee shots from which he can’t recover, and his focus comes and goes like cell phone service in remote areas.
Those two things, more than the age on his driver’s license, explain the decline in his performance.
So, what is different to this point at the Ocean Course where calamity is always one loose swing away.
“No foul balls,” said playing partner Jason Day. “Usually with Phil you can get some pretty wide ones, and he kept it straight out in front of him.”
At times, Mickelson has relied on a 2-wood off the tee, a special creation that allows more control without sacrificing too much distance. Into the wind, however, Mickelson still swings his driver. And he credits his brother/caddie Tim with masterfully managing the dastardly winds.
On Friday, Mickelson hit 11 of 14 fairways and wasn’t derailed when a spate of weak putting strokes led to bogeys at the 17th and 18th holes (his eighth and ninth). He made a technical adjustment and the ball started finding the hole again.
He kept the round together with a lovely up and down par save from the front of the par-3 eighth green then finished with a 22-foot birdie putt at the ninth about the time leader Branden Grace was making a double-bogey close to a mile away at the dangerous 17th to surrender the lead to Mickelson.
Asked to elaborate on how he’s managing to keep his mind focused on what’s in front of him, Mickelson sounded like, well, Mickelson. He talked about elongating his focus by elongating his meditation and visualization techniques.
Very Phil-like stuff.
The goal, however, remains the same.
“He’s not here to make the cut,” Harrington said. “Even 15th would be a disappointment.
“You know what? Even second would be a disappointment for Phil.”
After holing the birdie putt on his final hole Friday, Mickelson scaled a staircase behind the green as the gallery cheered him. Framed against a clear blue sky, Mickelson looked down, smiled and flashed his thumbs-up sign.
Everyone is imagining the possibilities.
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