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Phil Mickelson, the People's Champion, Was the Perfect Winner for This PGA Championship

Even at 50 years old, Phil Mickelson was a fitting winner for the first major in a long time with a throng of fans back on the course.

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Thirty years of adoration and one year of isolation intersected on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean Sunday afternoon, producing a mob for the golfer most comfortable amid one. So many fans crowded the 18th fairway that Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion nobody seemed to notice, had to ask them to move back, then back again, so he could hit. Phil Mickelson said he had never seen anything like those fans. Well, they had never seen anything like him, either.

Mickelson … no. He is too familiar for that. Phil. Phil won his sixth major, his second PGA Championship, this one so unlikely that Phil said afterward, “It's very possible that this is the last tournament I ever win.” He is 50 years old, careening back and forth between the PGA and Champions Tours, a legend who is supposed to be a ceremonial golfer by now. Phil is the oldest major champion in history. Phil kept believing he could do this even when, by his own admission, reasons were invisible, because he is Phil Mickelson, and one thing Phil has always done—no matter where he was, how he was playing or what obstacles resided between his ball and the hole—is believe.

Phil Mickelson walks toward the 18th green at the PGA Championship, fist raised, with a throng of fans behind him.

Anybody could have won the first major with a throng of fans since the country shut down last year. Koepka, who led with 17 to play, could have done it. Louis Oosthuizen, who was one lousy swing on No. 13 from possibly tying Phil, could have won his second major. But Phil was most deserving, and not only for his play all week, or even for his play since he turned pro in 1992, the year Koepka turned two. He deserved it because he stopped needing a last name half a lifetime ago. Nobody since Arnie embraced the public life of a pro golfer more than Phil.

Fans think they know him, and of course they don’t, but that isn’t the point. Phil’s appeal is that he makes fans think he knows them. As he walked from the 17th green to the 18th tee, he flashed his thumbs-up sign upward of a dozen times, surely leaving dozens believing one of those gestures was intended directly for them.

He thought he knew himself. He was Phil, the people’s champ, the action-craving showman who loved a little risk but loved a lot of risk even more. Phil once hit an insane six-iron off the pine straw on his way to a Masters win, then celebrated the next day by driving through a Krispy Kreme in his green jacket. Another time, he flew back to San Diego for his daughter Amanda’s middle-school graduation, then flew back to Philadelphia overnight, teed off at 7:11 a.m., shot the low round of the first day of the U.S. Open and nearly won the tournament.

Phil is too old for that now. A man his age must decide which pieces of himself to retain and which to discard. Asked what he gave up in pursuit of his old magic, he said “Food.” He eats less, exercises more and works harder because he has no choice. He seemed drained after each round this week, and he said Sunday night, “It takes a lot out of me … certainly takes more energy out of me. But if I work a little harder, spend a little more time in the gym, eat well, practice hard …” Earlier this week, Phil said he sometimes plays 36 to 45 holes in a day, not to hone his swing but to force himself to focus.

A few years back, he replaced longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay with his brother Tim, and Tim showed Sunday why he is exactly the right caddie for Phil at 50. Phil got off to an uneven six-hole start; he wallpapered over it in classic Phil fashion, by holing a bunker shot on five, but Tim understood that his brother needed to alter his mindset.

“He pulled me aside,” Phil said, “and said, ‘If you're going to win this thing, you're going to have to make committed golf swings.’ ”

Phil refocused and played the next five holes on a challenging, windy Ocean Course in two under par. Koepka played them in three over. Phil had a four-stroke lead with eight to play, and anybody who watched Phil over the years understood the lead was not safe. But this was a different Phil, more wisdom than hubris.

He stepped back from the 17th tee because he wasn’t completely comfortable with the shot he wanted to hit. His tee shot landed on the green but hopped into the dense rough; a fan nearby noted “[Patrick] Cantlay hit in the water from there,” but Phil knew to be careful. He gingerly popped his chip far short of the pin and two-putted. He played the 18th without a dash of fear or bravado: High fade off the tee, 9-iron safely to the green, lag putt, tap-in, history.

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Phil now has his contribution to the Old Legend Wins Stunning Major wing of Golf’s Hall of Memories. This is not quite on the level of Jack Nicklaus at the Masters in 1986 or Tiger Woods at the Masters in 2019, because Jack appeared near retirement and Tiger looked like he was already retired, and also because those were larger legends at a bigger event.

Phil is barely two years removed from his last PGA Tour win and fewer than three years removed from playing on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He did not come from nowhere. He lurked, tweaked, tinkered and stayed committed; he adjusted his diet, his swing, his clubs, his practice routines, even his chewing-gum habits. This was a triumph not just of a great golfer, but of a golfer in perpetual pursuit of greatness.

Many factors contribute to longevity in sports, and some are beyond the athlete’s control. Phil has been a little lucky to stay exceptionally healthy, but he won his sixth major in his 51st year by retaining his passion.

“My desire to play is the same,” he said. “I've never been driven by exterior things. I've always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete; I love playing the game.”

Phil Mickelson hits a chip shot on the 18th hole as the fans crowd in behind him during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament.

Phil used to revel in trying what seemed impossible; now Phil seems to understand the game is hard enough. This week certainly was. He struggled on Saturday’s back nine, then rushed to the driving range so he could make some fixes before nightfall. Sunday morning, Tim noticed a crack in the face of Phil’s utility iron—“I mean, just you can't swing it as hard as I hit it and not expect them to crack,” Phil joked afterward—so they swapped out a 4-wood. Phil hit his approach on 13 in the water, but he managed to two-putt from off the green to save bogey. He played his final round the way Koepka expected to play: smarter and steadier than anybody in his path.

Next month, in his hometown of San Diego, Phil has a chance to win the U.S. Open, the decades-long object of his unrequited love. It is the only major he has never won. He has finished second six times. You can imagine him winning, or you can do what Phil did all week: Stay present.

“I've tried to shut my mind to a lot of stuff going around,” he said. “I wasn't watching TV. I wasn't getting on my phone. I was just trying to quiet things down.”

After it was over, as fans roared, Phil stood in the sun by the 18th green, hands on his hips, scorecard signed, waiting for the Wanamaker Trophy presentation—quite a ceremony for a man who is supposed to be a ceremonial golfer. PHIL MICKELSON will be engraved on the Wanamaker twice now, and Phil will be engraved in our memories, not just for how much he won, but for how firmly he believed he could.

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