Near Miss at 2014 PGA Championship Shows 'Classic' Phil Mickelson Never Far Away

Lyle FitzsimmonsFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2014

LOUISVILLE, KY - AUGUST 10:  Phil Mickelson of the United States walks to the 18th green during the final round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club on August 10, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In a way, it shouldn’t be all that special.

Because Phil Mickelson’s been making something out of nothing since the moment he became a recognized commodity—typically with nothing beyond a lofted wedge in his hand—it should come as no surprise that he’s discovered a similar capacity to prolong his career beyond its forecast relevance.

Nonetheless, when he puts on a display like the one on Sunday at Valhalla, where he finished just a stroke behind 25-year-old phenom Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship, astonishment is involuntary.

For any number of reasons.

Not the least of which are age and appearance.

Though he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer with a resume of five major titles and 42 PGA Tour wins that compares to anyone not named Jack or Tiger, it’s getting harder to fathom that a man who first won when McIlroy was 20 months old—and who looks like Phil does—should still compete on similar planes.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 16:  Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland (L) waits on the 16th green with Phil Mickelson of the USA during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the Abu Dhabi Golf Clubon January 16, 2014 in Abu
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Even at a smallish 5’9”, the taut Irishman is the latest version of the athletically built, driver-wielding prototype that’s become the norm since a 21-year-old Woods exploded at the 1997 Masters. Meanwhile, Mickelson’s 6’3” silhouette has long leaned more Michelin than muscular, which, while it may earn him extra love from the everyman, does nothing to promote the premise he’s an equal.

Until, that is, he is.

While Sunday’s sunrise arrived with a chance that McIlroy could run the table as he’d done on the way to three prior majors—by a combined 18 strokes—it became evident once rain-stalled play began that the 44-year-old in the second-to-last pairing was in no hurry to simply attend another coronation.

Birdies at both the first and second quickly pared Mickelson’s initial three-shot deficit to one. And when McIlroy pushed a few inches right on a six-foot par putt at No. 3, the sleek hare and the rotund turtle were somehow in a flat-footed tie. The margin then went to one in the other direction after an erratic McIlroy’s second bogey on No. 6, and grew to two a few minutes with a Mickelson birdie on the ninth.

At that moment, even the idea that a 44-year-old could beat back the masses seemed possible.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Until, on Sunday at least, it wasn’t.

Because McIlroy’s 32 over the final nine was ultimately three shots better than Mickelson’s 35 over the same stretch, the knee-jerk reaction might be that it was simply the last instinctive gasp of a player whose window for genuine contention has slammed shut.

And while that may carry some truth when it comes to the myriad mundane Sundays from spring through fall, the major reality seems otherwise.

It was Mickelson’s ninth runner-up in a major alongside his five wins, and ensured a seventh straight season in which he’s managed at least one top-five at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA—including 2013, in which his result at the British yielded a Claret Jug.

Hardly the stat line of an old-timer content with status as a relic.

McIlroy’s top-five streak, incidentally, now stands at six years.

“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” a still-flushed Mickelson said at the post-tournament press conference, “but it was a fun day for me to get into the mix.”

The fleshy body may have been screaming uncle, but the spirit clearly hasn’t gotten the message.