LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One round for Phil Mickelson, who must have played 10,000 rounds of golf in his life. Maybe 50,000. One round, but even for a man who’s been there, done that, won majors, won millions, it's a round that could make a difference.
How strange, the PGA Championship, the tournament which carries the reminder "This is major" at the front of the media tent, is being played at a course named after a hall named for slain warriors in Norse mythology, Valhalla. It is on a course with a funeral connotation Mickelson again seeks to find life.
He found it Sunday, with that one round in 10,000, an eight-under-par 62 at the Bridgestone. It's not the lowest score Mickelson ever shot, but given the circumstances, it's one of the most significant. The score that made him a believer, the score that came at a point in his career when 54 holes into the Bridgestone he confessed, "It would be out of nowhere for me to play well."
Yet from out of somewhere, the next day, last Sunday, he had 10 birdies and only two bogeys. Though it couldn’t lift him any higher than 15th in the final scores, 10 shots behind Rory McIlroy, it lifted his spirits immeasurably.
"Thursday, Friday," he said, talking about a 71-73, "I didn’t know what to think. You don’t want to put too much emphasis on just one round, but the way the pieces fell together, I started to roll the ball well, and my wedge play started to get good.
"Really, just two days prior, it was just horrific. So it was an important day for me to get some momentum."
Mickelson is 44, hasn’t had a top-10 finish in any PGA Tour event in a year and is scrambling to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team a 10th straight time. He missed the cut in the Masters. He finished 23rd in the British Open, where he was defending champion. He finished 28th in the U.S. Open.
Some people—noting the decline in his short game and putting, for years not only his strength but among the very best of the pros—said he was finished. Period.
Not after a 62 he isn’t. Then again, it’s only one round. Does it revitalize a career which for 12 months seemingly has ebbed—49th in the Memorial, a missed cut in The Players—or does it create false promise?
Golf is a fickle mistress. You have her, then she has you. Mickelson gets an embrace, then a slap to the face. It’s golf, he advises, and every golfer understands exactly what he means and what he feels.
"Yeah, if I could answer that question, it would be a lot easier, too," he said when asked why a remarkable round, such as the 62, occurs at the most unexpected of times. "It's been 20-plus years, and things are just that way. Rather than question it or try to find an answer, I just accept it as being the way it is and look forward to it when it does happen. It's fun when it does."
He’s streaky, and he’s learned to live with the streakiness rather than grinding his teeth and hurling his clubs at his caddy, Bones MacKay.
"It's just kind of the way I play golf," he said. "I'll get on rolls and get some good momentum, and all of a sudden the hole looks like it's huge, and then there are days where it's just the opposite. It's just the way it's always been for me. I don't have a great answer."
Such a big year for Mickelson, to try to regain a spot on a U.S. Ryder Cup team for the matches against Europe, which will be played the end of September at Gleneagles, Scotland.
The first nine players in the standings qualify automatically. Then the captain, this year Tom Watson for a second time, is allowed to make three selections. Since Mickelson ranks 13th going into the PGA and since he has such an admirable record—38 matches, 17 points in better ball, alternate shot and singles play—the assumption is he would be picked.
"Well," he said, "I’m on the outside looking in right now, so we have some work to do this week. I really do believe that after the way I played on the weekend, I’ll continue to play that way, and I’m confident I’ll get on the team and won’t require a pick.
"I want to keep that streak going of two decades, that I have."
Mickelson was paired with Keegan Bradley, 26 at the time, in the 2012 Ryder Cup. He plays frequent practice rounds with 25-year-old Rickie Fowler, who tied for second in this year’s U.S. Open and British Open.
When asked how he feels joining golfers 15 to 20 years his junior, those who said they watched him when they were in elementary school, Mickelson had a clear response.
"Just makes me feel old, that’s all." Those listening became those laughing, Phil joining them. "When somebody says, 'Yeah, I used to watch you on TV when I was six,' how do you respond to that? Great."
|Mickelson in Majors Since Winning '13 Open Championship|
|2013 PGA Championship||+12||T 72|
|2014 U.S. Open||+7||T 28|
|2014 Open Championship||-5||T 23|
Will that be the word to describe Mickelson’s play after weeks and months of golf that was considerably less than great?
"It’s been a while since I felt confident heading in (to a tournament)," he said, "and I didn’t know I was going to feel this way after the first two rounds last week. It’s a nice turn of events.
"I feel like I’m not searching. I’m trying to keep that momentum going. I’m just trying to keep better touch and feel on those short irons so that my distance control is more precise. I had been getting a little—I don’t want to say mechanical—but a little tight and wasn’t taking advantage of my feel and touch."
He did for one round. Will he do it for a tournament, the PGA Championship? It’s a major...as we are so instructed.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.