Who You Calling Old?

With his hands all over the Ryder Cup and flashes of brilliant play at the Honda, Phil Mickelson proved that even at 44 he's about more than winning majors. And spurred by the young guns, he just might have the game to contend for years
March 09, 2015

YOU NEVER really know where to look in golf. Not since Tiger has vacated the scene (for now). Certainly not in a week when Rory McIlroy missed the cut. Most of the few thousand people who were on hand early on Monday at PGA National were there to see if Phil Mickelson, at age 44, could win the 43rd Tour event of his career and prevail for the first time since his victory at the British Open at Muirfield nearly 18 months ago. When final-round play resumed at the Honda Classic, only three players were ahead of him, all name-brand Ryder Cuppers: Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Patrick Reed.

Raise your hand if you were thinking about 43-year-old Padraig Harrington on your commute to work. Or ... Daniel Berger. He was born on the day—April 7, 1993—when Phil played in the Masters par-3 tournament for the first time as a professional.

Three and a half hours after play resumed, Harrington and Berger were heading off to a playoff while Mickelson was heading down the road to an afternoon game at Seminole Golf Club. Poulter hit five balls in the water in his final-round four-over 74 but finished only a shot out of the playoff. This week in the WGC event at Doral he'll be looking to win for the first time on any tour since November 2012. Reed will be looking to defend his title there. Casey will be there too, having sneaked into the field after jumping to 45th in the World Ranking.

Not Berger. You'll be hearing more from him, though. Harrington won for the first time on Tour since 2008, with a par on the second playoff hole. Harrington is the greatest talker in golf—better even than Phil—and it's great to have him back. But the revelation last week was Berger.

SKINNIER AT 21 than Mickelson's index finger, Berger showed shades of the legendary lefty on his way to posting six under through 72 holes. His final-round 64 came in two parts. His final shot on Sunday, before darkness halted play, was a pitch-in on the par-4 11th for a birdie. On Monday, at the par-5 18th hole, facing a 240-yard second shot with water lurking, Berger, in the Mickelson tradition, didn't even think about laying up. He ripped a fading fairway wood on the green and two-putted to become the leader in the clubhouse. He would have made Phil proud.

Sadly, Phil did not make himself proud, not on this day. Monday began for Phil the way Sunday ended: looking at a 12-footer for par on the 9th green. There's a popular myth about Mickelson, that with his place in the golf firmament already secured, he cares only about the majors. That cannot possibly be true. When he stood over that putt on Monday, it was hard to imagine anything in the world more important to him, at least in his athletic life. He was four under par on the comically difficult Champion course at PGA National.

On Monday this rain-plagued Honda turned into one of the wackiest Tour events in years. You're not going to be kicked out of Phil's fan club if your eye moved elsewhere. But before the craziness? It was a Phil show. He filled the vacuum. It is one of his unique abilities.

It's been that way forever with him. He was doing that let-the-legend-grow thing long before Earl Woods turned it into a golf catchphrase. After the U.S. defeat at the Ryder Cup in Scotland last September, Mickelson essentially took over the losers' press conference, making a veiled criticism of Tom Watson's management of the team. Mickelson, a winner of the PGA Championship and undoubtedly a future Ryder Cup captain, became a commanding presence in the PGA of America's Ryder Cup task force, the star-studded, blue-ribbon panel designed to return U.S. golf to competitiveness in the international competition.

Early in the task force process, Mickelson and Woods, by far the two most prominent figures on the 11-man committee, were pushing for Fred Couples to be named the 2016 Ryder Cup captain. But then Pete Bevacqua, the CEO of the PGA, and Mickelson began talking about bringing Davis Love III back for a return engagement. The idea was that Love, the '12 captain, would be in the best position to establish a playbook that would be handed down to and edited by future leaders. When Mickelson moved off Couples and onto Love, the path for Love to return was clear.

Phil, being Phil, was the dominant voice at a press conference at the PGA of America headquarters last week when Love was introduced. He was asked if the whole Ryder Cup aftermath—the creation of the task force, player involvement in the naming of a new captain—was on his mind when he made his pointed comments at Gleneagles.

"I wasn't thinking that at the time," Mickelson said, "but I'm excited about where we are now, and I'm excited about where we are headed, not just into 2016 but really for the next 10 or 20 years. I'm excited about the next generation of players, Rickie [Fowler] and Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed and guys that are going to be on the upcoming teams that will have input in who their captain is."

MAYBE THOSE three twentysomethings will play for Mickelson when he captains the 2024 Ryder Cup team at Bethpage Black. No, the PGA has not announced who will lead beyond '16, but it makes sense. Maybe Berger will be on the team too. He's got game in his blood. His father, Jay, was briefly a top 10 tennis player and today is a leading coach. Mickelson, who won the Tour's Tucson stop as a 20-year-old amateur, has an eye for young talent and feeds off it. He brought Fowler under his wing when Fowler was a 20-year-old Tour rookie.

With his recent 20-pound weight loss and the tighter swing he has developed under the tutelage of Butch Harmon, Mickelson has a tee-to-green game that could keep him in the mix for years to come. He does not chip with the skill he once did. His putting stroke, with a conventional grip, has no yip in it. His energy level—physical, mental and, always, verbal—is impressive. There's no reason he shouldn't be able to contend at Augusta for the foreseeable future. What he doesn't seem to do is read putts as well as he used to. The PGA National greens are pure and subtle. Mickelson missed numerous putts with strokes that looked good. The opening attempt on Monday was not among them. That 8 a.m. bogey seemed to take the wind out of him.

Phil knows how it works. Daniel Berger is looking to Phil's place in the game. And Phil will fight him tooth-and-nail, with that familiar grin on his face. But he might see Padraig Harrington in a Ryder Cup match before that.

Skinnier at 21 than Mickelson's index finger, Berger showed shades of the legendary lefty.

Before the craziness? It was a Phil show. He filled the vacuum. It is one of his unique abilities.

Sal's Corner

The Bear Trap giveth, the Bear Trap taketh away. For four rounds no player navigated the watery three-hole stretch better than Daniel Berger, who had five birdies and nary a bogey. But on the second hole of the playoff at the Honda, Berger rinsed his tee shot at the 17th, and Padraig Harrington won with a par. Among the contenders, no player struggled with the Bear Trap more than Patrick Reed, who played the holes in three over par and finished three back.

PLAYER 15 16 17 Total Finish
Padraig Harrington Even -2 +1 -1 -6
Daniel Berger -2 -1 -2 -5 -6
Paul Casey Even Even +1 +1 -5
Russell Knox -1 +1 -1 -1 -5
Ian Poulter +1 Even -2 -1 -5
Jamie Donaldson +1 +1 -2 E -4
PHOTOPhotograph by Darren Carroll For Sports IllustratedLISTEN UP Mickelson lost his mojo on Monday, but the five-time major champion is never at a loss for words. PHOTODAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGESMULLIGAN After finding the water at 17 in regulation, Harrington (right) returned to the par-3 and vanquished Berger. PHOTOPhotograph by Darren Carroll For Sports IllustratedYOUNG AT HEART His short game showed some rust, but don't tell Phil he can't compete with the twentysomethings.