Phil Mickelson Captures Human Spirit with PGA Championship Win

Scott Frisch watches in awe as Phil Mickelson chips in from the green-side bunker on the par-3 5th at Kiawah Island.

Frisch and Mickelson were teammates on Arizona State’s historic golf program. During their time together, Mickelson won three NCAA individual championships and three Haskins awards for the most outstanding collegiate golfer. Frisch witnessed first-hand Mickelson’s magic around the greens and the competitive fire that fuelled his success.

“He always seemed to be the guy that pulled us out,” Frisch said, recalling memories of Mickelson the college golfer. “Whether it was getting up and down, hitting an 80-yard wedge shot, making a crucial birdie, he always pulled it off. It was amazing.”

On Sunday, as Frisch sits on his couch at his Arizona home, he takes in the magnitude of this moment. Golf is a game where longevity can be possible but not at the highest level. Eventually, father-time catches up with golfers. There is a moment that the week in, week out grind of the PGA Tour can no longer be sustained. Sure, there is the Champions Tour, where former winners go on to have a successful epilogue to their careers. But it’s not the same.

Frisch, age 52, saw his former college teammate win a major championship at age 50. Yes, that previous sentence is real life in 2021. Phil Mickelson is once again a major winner. His sixth major ties him with Sir Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino. But more importantly, Mickelson’s win redefines what is possible in sports, capturing the human spirit with an unlikely outcome.

“I knew he was one of those special individuals,” Frisch said. “You get in the game every once in a while. Phil is one of those unique individuals that have done so well for so long. It’s phenomenal.”

Entering the PGA Championship, Mickelson’s odds to win were 300-1. He won on the Champions Tour. He needed an exemption to play in the U.S. Open in June. He was starting to become a distant thought in the annals of golf history, compared to the bright, fiery youngsters that are dominating the headlines in today’s game.

As Frisch recounts, whenever Arizona State needed a big performance, the team relied on Mickelson for the masterful round. The echoes of the past were present on Sunday at the Ocean Course, as Mickelson plodded along the course, relying on his veteran experience. It didn’t start the way he envisioned, with a bogey on first and his playing partner, four-time major winner Brooks Koepka recording a birdie. Mickelson responded on the par-5 second with a birdie. Every time Mickelson bogeyed on the front 9, he followed it up with a birdie, never getting flustered, never losing focus.

Even after bogeys on 13 and 14, Mickelson continued to hit superb shots. Look no further than the par-5 16th, where he crushed a drive 366 yards, the longest out of any golfer this week. On that same hole, he chipped a shot that trickled along the putting surface, to 17 inches from the hole. Mickelson walked up, wasted no time, and knocked it in.

On the punitive par-3 17th, after firing his tee shot into the rough beyond the hole, Mickelson smartly chipped it onto the green, avoiding the water. It’s the type of shot that may not be shown on highlight reels or Hall-of-Fame montages but is necessary to win a major championship.

As Mickelson walked up the 18th, with a raucous crowd following him, chanting his name, one can’t help but feel sentimental and nostalgic. It wasn’t the perfect round, but it was good enough. It was human, which makes Mickelson so relatable to so many.

Throughout his whole career, Mickelson played in the shadow of the invincible Tiger Woods. A superhuman golfer, who has 15 majors and tied for most wins on the PGA Tour with Sam Snead (80). Comparisons existed between the two American golfers; Tiger won his first major at the 1997 Masters while Mickelson needed to wait until 2004. Even as Mickelson began accumulating majors, it didn’t come without disappointments. The 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst against the late Payne Stewart to blowing the lead in 2005 at Winged Foot to Geoff Ogilvy. Or losing in heartbreaking fashion at the 2013 U.S. Open to Justin Rose at Merion or shooting a final-round 65 at the 2016 Open Championship yet still falling short to Henrik Stenson, who shot 63.

It’s the imperfection that makes Phil so relatable and captivating.

“You love to root for a champion, but you also love to root for an underdog,” Frisch said. “What endears him to the fans is that he’s not afraid to succeed or fail. We’ve seen some of Phil’s most devastating losses and it makes your heart sink. Average golf fans can relate to it because they’ve hit bad shots. But Phil bounced back and kept going because he’s mentally strong. That’s what makes him enduring.”

Despite this, Mickelson has incredible victories. Jumping up on the 18th green at Augusta to win the Masters in 2004. Incredible shot-making at Muirfield in 2013 to add a Claret Jug to his trophy case. And now a second Wanamaker Trophy at Kiawah Island, thanks to wisdom and experience.

As Mickelson said after the final round, he credits his recent success to enhanced mental focus and the support of his brother, Tim, on the bag all four days at the PGA Championship. It was Tim who got Phil to refocus on hitting solid shots after a roller-coaster start to the round.

“He pulled me aside and said, ‘If you’re going to win this thing, you’re going to have to make committed golf swings,’” Mickelson said. “It hit me in the head, I can’t make passive — I can’t control the outcome, I have to swing committed. With the help of Tim, I’ve been able to make the progress and have a great week.”

Walking off the 18th green, Mickelson embraced Steve Loy, Frisch and Phil’s former college coach at Arizona State. Several young college golfers, at Arizona State and colleges across America, have a newfound inspiration after Mickelson’s historic win.

Ask the younger golfers on Tour and they revel in Mickelson’s success, growing up when he was in the prime of his career. Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy jokingly said he didn’t pay attention to Phil much “because he was more focused on Tiger.” Emiliano Grillo called Mickelson “the greatest number-two golfer of all time.”

Others, like Robert MacIntyre and Collin Morikawa, want to play for many more years because of Mickelson.

“I’ve looked up to Phil,” MacIntyre said. “I’ve watched him do everything in golf. That’s the reason I pushed myself to get to where I am now was watching him,”

“To see what he’s doing, he’s 50, 51, something like that, I mean, that’s amazing,” Morikawa said. “And to see him just wanting to keep getting better, wanting to learn, I hope when I hit that age I’m still trying to do that, trying to get better.”

Mickelson acknowledged that the 2021 PGA Championship may be his last win. Or “I might go on a bit of a run.”

Tom Brady at 43 won the Super Bowl. Serena Williams continues to contend at Grand Slams as a mother. Now, Phil Mickelson captured the PGA Championship at age 50, supplanting Julius Boros as the oldest major champion.

From Arizona State to Kiawah Island, Mickelson hopes to inspire golfers around the world, that they too can win the biggest events, regardless of age.

“There’s no reason why the game of golf can’t be the game for a lifetime. If you take care of your body and do it the right way, you can work out the right way to get your body to function right and play golf for a lifetime.”