KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Phil Mickelson has an imagination few in golf have possessed, along with a skill set that allows him to see shots no one else can.
One year at The Players Championship, he was in a bunker blocked by trees with no way forward except to go around them. Mickelson hit 7-iron through a gap so small he didn't tell his caddie what he was doing so no one could talk him out of it. He hit it on the green and wound up winning that week.
Self-belief has never been an issue. It's why Mickelson, even at age 50, always thought he could win another major. That moment came Sunday at Kiawah Island with a victory in the PGA Championship that made him the oldest major champion.
Even so, the vision of doing what no one else had in 161 years of the majors was getting blurry.
“Until I actually did it,” Mickelson said, “there was a lot of doubt.”
Never mind that he had gone two years without winning on the PGA Tour, eight years since winning a major, nine months since playing a final round on tour that mattered. The physical part wasn't an issue. This was more about the mind, and it deeply concerned him.
It was only three weeks ago that Mickelson spoke of mental lapses during a round that was costing him careless bogeys, keeping him from contending or even making the cut.
“I don't have a great solution right now,” he said after missing the cut in the Valspar Championship. “But I'm working on it.”
He found the answer.
Some of the shots he hit Sunday were exquisite, whether it was the pitch-and-run from behind the second green to a back pin that led to birdie or his 7-iron into the wind and over an expansive waste area to start the back nine with a birdie for a four-shot lead.
Through it all, Mickelson kept his head in the game. He walked slowly. Except for a few lapses to be expected of anyone in such testing conditions as Kiawah, he didn't hit a shot until he had a clear picture of what it was supposed to look like.
“It’s very exciting because I’ve had a few breakthroughs on being able to stay more present, be able to stay more focused, and physically, I’m striking it and playing as well as I ever have but I haven’t been able to see that clear picture," Mickelson said.
Most telling was what he shared going into the weekend about trying to find more length, not with his driver but with his concentration.
“I might try to play 36, 45 holes a day and try to focus on each shot so that when I go out and play 18, it doesn't feel like it's that much,” Mickelson said. "I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating, but I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.
“Physically, I feel like I’m able to perform and hit the shots that I’ve hit throughout my career, and I feel like I can do it every bit as well as I have,” he said. “But I’ve got to have that clear picture and focus.”
His brother was an enormous help. Tim Mickelson, the former golf coach at Arizona State, became his caddie four years ago and knew what buttons to push over the weekend.
“It's trying not to overthink things,” Tim Mickelson said. “We'll talk about a shot 200 yards away and I'd say, ‘Let’s worry about it once we get there.' I told him to keep his mind quiet, not think about anything until it was time to hit the shot.”
The concentration lapses are only natural for someone who now has PGA Tour victories 30 years apart — no one in tour history has done that — and for a player who loves to compete at age 50 as much as he did when he was 20.
Confidence has never been an issue for Mickelson. It stems from the joy of competing. Steve Stricker was reminded of that when they arrived at Kiawah Island for a money game on Monday — Stricker and Mickelson against Zach Johnson and Will Zalatoris.
“Phil and I were 3 up after three and he said it loud enough so everybody could hear, ”You know, Strick, I thought we'd be up more at this point.' And we were 3 up after three," Stricker said. "Typical Phil. He still has a tremendous amount of desire to compete at this level, and that's why he's doing it."
Mickelson is scheduled to play at Colonial this week. The U.S. Open — the one major he lacks for the career Grand Slam — is a month away. Mickelson originally needed an exemption for the U.S. Open. Now he can play through 2025, unless he wins another major.
Would winning another be a surprise given his endless supply of desire?
“I think the best players in the world, I think they all have that,” his brother said. “Phil has just carried that on for 35 years. He just loves golf. When he's at home, he's still playing almost every single day. It never stops for him."
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